Fear Is Not A Good Basis For Energy Policy (Fracking And Pipelines)


MICHAEL LYNCH and Contributor

November 3, 2014

It was amusing to hear that an Administration official had said that Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was a ‘coward,’ since Jews are the classic case proving the adage that “paranoics can have enemies”. Which is not to say that I agree with Netanyahu’s stance on the nuclear negotiations with Iran, but fear seems to have cropped up a lot in energy policies in recent days.

But fear is sometimes used as the sole justification for policy making, the most recent instance being a Connecticut school principal who banned a student from school because she had been in Nigeria, a country which had no actual ebola cases at that time. The official acted “due to concern from certain parents and teachers that she could transmit Ebola to other children…”[1]

I recall the same attitude among opponents to nuclear power, who argued that public fears should be taken into account, as well as actual risks. The idea being, apparently, that fears had their own negative consequence even if they were unfounded. This seems a logical concern, especially in this day of PTSD.

Except that there are lots of unfounded fears that seem unworthy of being the source of policy. Americans have historically feared Germans, Irish, Catholics, Freemasons and many other groups, to say nothing of various food groups, from gluten to white rice. Should mosque construction be banned because some blindly equate Islam with terrorism? Which brings us to some recent cases that are making headlines and subject to referendums, fracking bans on referendums and gas pipeline construction. Can blind fear be separated from rational risk assessment?

Proposals to build new natural gas pipelines in Massachusetts have met strong public resistance, but much of it is not rational. Citizens in Richmond, Mass., for example, have expressed fears of significant detrimental effects, despite the fact that there are already five pipelines that pass through the town. [2] One supporter of a MoveOn.org petition argued that “we all need to stand up against the greed-driven devastation by Big Oil and Gas of our land, our water, wildlife…” [3]

(MoveOn.org’s credibility can be judged by their claim that “fracked gas travels at high pressure,” an incorrect statement that demonstrates ignorance of the basics of the industry. Fracked gas is methane, and moves with all other methane, at the same pressures in the major pipelines.)

In fact, there are now nearly a thousand miles of pipelines in Massachusetts already, none of which seems to have “devastated” the environment, and in the US, over two hundred thousand miles of interstate pipelines. Given that number, and the lengthy presence of so many, why are there no pictures documenting the supposed devastation?

Similarly, bans on the hydraulic fracturing of shales (“fracking”) are on the ballot in a number of places, and most seem to be based on irrational fears and misinformation rather than consideration of the cost/benefit analysis. The presumption that all pollution near a fracking area comes from the fracking is common, as are the reliance on anecdotal stories about illness, most of which can’t be confirmed as related to the practice of fracking.

Again, with fracking widespread and supposedly high-risk, why can’t opponents come up with better evidence? Claims that cell phones caused brain tumors were quickly dismissed by the public who noted the ubiquitous nature of cell-phones and the rarity of brain tumors. Similar logic should be applied to questions relating to the energy industry.

Which is not to say that a new gas pipeline is needed in Massachusetts or that any given route is optimal, nor that fracking doesn’t have risks that need to be monitored and regulated. But a little more calm, rational discourse would go a long way to providing a beneficial outcome.

[1] http://wwlp.com/2014/10/28/connecticut-family-sues-over-schools-ebola-fears/

[2] http://www.bostonglobe.com/business/2014/06/08/company-proposes-natural-gas-pipeline-cross-massachusetts/uvoxHT3zECRockdVzTIADO/story.html

[3] http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/massachusetts-petition

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