Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Fracking Debate Would Benefit from Logic

But we may need to teach reasoning skills

Let’s have Dr. Spock look at the debate.  He doesn’t get to decide the issue.  We just give him a cattle prod and let him zap those who get illogical. 
First let’s address the structure.  The Federal government is about to set rules for drilling on Federal land.  No problem there, but get the prod charged up. 

The Federal government seems to be gearing up to set a standard that will apply to all Federal land.  ZAP!  That makes no sense.  In some areas groundwater, which is what the rules are supposed to protect, is an important resource. In other areas, groundwater is not so important.  Geology isn’t vanilla.  The risks and impact of fracking varies with geology.  So should the regulations.
Further, in some areas other issues, like the use of surface water, may be more important than the risks to groundwater.  What is important isn’t the same on all Federal land. Also, there is no logical reason that regulations that protect groundwater would not be damaging to other concerns like surface water supply, carbon emissions, or economic growth.   They might or might not be. It’s an empirical question not a logical one.  Witness how dams create other environmental issues. It is logical to regulate what is important.

Keep that zapper handy.  Now we’ll look at lobbyists’ positions.  Let’s start with the Natural Resources Defense Council.  They state that they think that the Interior Department should have strong rules that “should not be weaker than what any state has on its books.”  They get a double for that statement. ZAP! ZAP!  One zap for the failure to distinguish between optimum and maximum. Logically they are saying they don’t want the best regulation (unless it’s the most). They get a second zap for applying maximization where it doesn’t apply.  One can’t assume that it is possible to have “strong rules” across diverse situations.  What is strong in one situation isn’t in others.  A single approach can only maximize uniform situations. They’re saying they don’t want the strongest rules for some situations unless that set of rules is strongest in all situations.  Never mind whether strongest is best.
But it doesn’t stop there.  Environmental groups say hydraulic fracturing should be stopped until experts can confirm it is environmentally safe.  ZAP!  The U.S. government hasn't produced any evidence that contamination occurs.  But that doesn’t mean damage couldn’t occur.  It is impossible to prove a negative. It is illogical to expect the impossible. 

Companies say state officials are in a better position than federal officials to regulate hydraulic fracturing because they understand the local geology and community concerns. That gets the same zap as the idea of a Federal set of rules.  Geology is no respecter of state boundaries. Groundwater flows.  But, it’s a lowercase zap because at the state level interstate agreements are possible. 
We have authorities for river basins.  If groundwater really were the concern, someone would raise the suggestion that we at least consider a similar approach for groundwater.

Energy experts say the new rules could serve as a template for States, and many people expect the rule for Federal land to become the model for a standard for natural-gas wells on all lands.  ZAP!  Federal land is almost by definition different -- different population densities, different ecological systems, often unique geological formations, etc.  It has different property structures by definition.  With Federal land, the government is saying how its land can be used.  On other land, the government is saying how other people can use their land.  The rules should only be uniform if property rights don’t exist. 
Often the issue arises around conflicting property rights: the private property rights of well owners specifically the rights of the owner of the water well verse the rights of the owner of the natural gas well.  It gets interesting when the government ventures into areas where they don’t own all mineral rights.  In many areas, groundwater protection involves protecting a private property right to a good that the owner often paid nothing to get, well water, verses a good that the owner bought, potential natural gas well output.  So, one is often a right to a good that the water well owner values because it is free while the other is often a right to a good for which the natural gas well owner will pay royalties.   It’s hard to imagine a one size fits all solution to such varied situations.

Spock, of course, would point out that the zapper itself is illogical.  Negative reinforcement is so much less efficient than positive feedback.  Incentives work.  People, however, are illogical.  So, a game that punishes deviations from logic comes close to being trapped by “It is illogical to expect the impossible.”  Those who expect fracking rules  that are logical will get zapped, but not by Spock.