To frack or not to frack? That is the question

After a year’s work between Texas and New York studying the science, politics, and ideology of natural gas development–my Master’s thesis is complete. The full text is available through the Bard Center for Environmental Policy and forthcoming for publication. In the meantime, here is the abstract:

To Frack or Not to Frack: The Ideological Roots of Support for and Resistance to Natural Gas Development

Abstract

The modern vision of the Good Life—indistinguishable from the idea of progress—is energy intensive. We go to extreme lengths to harness energy resources, conducting vast technological socio-environmental experiments to satiate the human demand for energy. But energy development is risk-laden, and people approach the risks of progress differently, which manifests as political contention.

Bookending the continuum of risk-related ideology, the precautionary and proactionary principles have become pillars of philosophic and political debate. Natural gas development—hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or “fracking”—is particularly risky and, in turn, the politics of fracking have become correspondingly controversial. On one hand, precautionaries about natural gas development spurn fracking as guaranteed disaster, while on the other, proactionaries hail natural gas development as an ideal energy opportunity.

But why are people precautionary and proactionary about natural gas development? To Frack or Not to Frack explores this question using an international survey instrument and statistical causal analysis. Evidence indicates that precautionary and proactionary regulatory preferences about natural gas development are a function of relevant knowledge, values, and beliefs.

Precautionaries about natural gas development tend to be knowledgeable of the risk-related scientific literature on fracking and to especially value environmental stewardship and public health and safety. Proactionaries, on the other hand, tend to principally value economic growth, believe that technology is generally trustworthy, and believe that either plenty of scientific research has already been
done on natural gas development orthat more science is still needed.

When determining specific permitting and operating requirements for natural gas development, policymakers should directly engage the relevant knowledge, values, and beliefs that drive the precautionary and proactionary regulatory preferences of their constituents via regular, open participatory policymaking procedures and statistical analysis of risk-related preference data gathered through public polling. Natural gas development policy should reflect the moral nuances of its constituency. Natural gas development policy should also reflect that developers are morally responsible for researching and internalizing the risks of harm related to development, including literal physical or environmental harm and exposure to risk of harm.

Solar panels for all, precautionary or proactionary?

I think Crane and Kennedy have a point here – relying on solar energy, specifically putting solar paneling on residential roofs, are a good way to reduce the risk of relying on an antiquated electrical grid system that’s highly vulnerable to storms and natural disasters (like Sandy). The traditional grid, knitted together by a bucolic web of wooden poles and copper wires, leaves society exposed should part of its fragile infrastructure fail.

So, switching to residential, distributive solar can be seen a precautionary move — it’s too risky to keep depending on a grid that falls apart if power lines go down with a tree limb. Independent, “off-grid” home power systems would strengthen each link of the social chain mail so that when nature throws us a curve ball we aren’t left in the dark for days or weeks on end. For the risk-averse, these are worthy concerns. Not to mention that solar energy doesn’t carry the bouquet of environmental and human health risks that accompany the extreme ways that we extract fossil fuels these days (horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, deep water drilling for oil, and mountaintop removal mining for coal).

Often we’ll hear opponents of renewables frame alternative energy as being too risky. The wind and sun are intermitted, the technology is inefficient, and the costs are uncompetitive — or so they say. But with better battery technology, dramatic improvements in solar cell efficiency, and expectations of lower home installation costs these arguments against renewables won’t hold water in public for much longer. Soon, in fact, this framing will probably reverse itself and renewables will be understood as safe, sensible, and reliable, while fossil fuels will be seen as dangerous, costly, and anachronistic.

But should we understand support for solar energy as precautionary or proactionary?

On one hand,  using residential and distributive solar power is a precautionary move away from the risks of depending on fossil fuels and the outmoded electrical grid. In this sense, the switch to solar is less about the goodness of solar energy in particular, but rather about the consequence of mitigating the risks of fossil fuel use. To put it another way, to precautionary supporters of solar, it’s likely that any alternative energy source would be satisfactory since the shift is more about getting away from the risks of fossil fuels than it is about shifting to a particular kind of renewable energy.

On the other hand, proactionary supporters of solar might emphasize the goodness of solar energy itself over and above its consequence of replacing fossil fuels alone. Solar energy is good not simply because we need to mitigate the risks of fossil fuel use, but because solar energy represents progress. Fossil fuels remind us of primitive industrialism, while solar power speaks to our progressive refinement toward symbiosis with each other and the environment. Indeed, for proactionaries to put such immense trust in new solar technology despite its relative nascence is somewhat risky, but switching to solar is a matter of moral obligation; it is our duty to ourselves, to future generations, and to the non-human to make the change.

So, should we be proactionary or precautionary about solar power? I’m not convinced we have to choose — I support solar technology for precautionary and proactionary purposes. I am deeply concerned with mitigating the risks of our continued reliance on fossil fuels because they are inherently finite, unsustainable, environmentally damaging to extract, and pose threats to human health during development and when burned. Simultaneously, I believe that our relationship with the Sun is a special one and that it makes sense on ethical, axiological, and existential levels that the source of life should also be the source of high quality living.

Today, our visions of the Good Life are intimately intertwined with energy. High quality living means energy intensive living (with the exception of a few rogue primitivists out there). So the progressive challenge is making such a lifestyle sustainable. Progress, in this sense, is sustainability. But solar energy is not all about progress in the long-term. It’s also about human and environmental safety in the short-term.

Usually we find ourselves in a conundrum when it comes to the precautionary v. proactionary distinction: either we accept some risk as the price of progress, or we sacrifice some progress in order to mitigate risk. The difficulty arises when people make divergent value judgments about the proper balance of risk and progress — and also when we assume that the two routes are mutually exclusive.

Solar energy technology, however, defeats the idea that we can only reduce risk at the cost of progress. Making the gradual switch to solar constitutes progress toward sustainability and reduces the risks of using fossil fuels. We can be proactionary and precautionary at the same timeNow that’s progress.

Cheers!

Kincaid

Dave Roberts on the future of solar

We had the pleasure of speaking with Dave as part of Bard CEP’s National Climate Seminar in the fall of 2011, his take is always interesting.

Here he interviews venture capitalist Michael Leibreich on the future of solar energy, part three of a three part interview.

Leibreich’s answer to Dave’s final question raises an interesting point about the way we think about interest/discounting rates, how we value the future relative to the present, and how we perceive the risks of investment versus the risks of non-investment. Achieving 80% renewables by 2050 would be expensive upfront and risky (depending on new technology is always risky), but perpetuating our fossil fuel use has its own risks (environmental, human health, etc) and is subject to unpredictable swings in fuel costs. As Dave points out, this debate could be one about economics, but it tends to verge on more philosophical questions about the risks and uncertainties that come with new technology, much in line with the proactionary-precautionary question raised by Steve Fuller and at CSID.

Cheers!

JM Kincaid

We need a knowledgeable nudge

Here Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that the SCOTUS ruling on the Affordable Care Act bodes well for the constitutionality of environmental policies that use taxes to influence our behavior. Of particular interest to me here is the idea that policies, like taxes, can nudge us to act ethically. Pigouvian taxes, for instance, aim to internalize the negative externalities of economic activity. A pollution tax, e.g., influences behavior by giving emitters a choice: “pay or don’t emit.” If regulators set the tax at the right level, where it’s cheaper for businesses to reduce their emissions rather than pay the tax, then we get economically efficient pollution reductions.

But setting a tax at the “right” level can be difficult. Policymakers must be sure not to over or under shoot the mark. If the tax is too low then there’s no incentive for polluters to reduce their emissions. If it’s too high then we end up using our already limited resources in an inefficient way. Neither is desirable. Why, then, don’t they just get it right?

The challenge policymakers face is informational. Making good pollution reduction policy takes “on the ground” knowledge, but this information is frequently wrong, unavailable, or non-existent. Estimations of the societal costs from pollution are often uncertain and the corporate costs of polluting tend to fall under the scope of “proprietary knowledge.” The result is that policymakers don’t know what the real damages to society from pollution are, nor do they know how much pollution abatement would cost businesses. So how can policymakers hit a target that they can’t see?

Some argue that the invisible hand should guide the shot using a market-based cap and trade system to reduce pollution. But, again, this assumes that policymakers know more than they often do. Cap and trade policies only work if policymakers know the marginal costs of pollution abatement for businesses and the marginal benefits of abatement for society. The former, however, is proprietary knowledge and the latter varies in estimation. Without that knowledge they risk setting an inefficient target, so we run into the same informational problem that we do with a tax policy.

Policymakers are in a tough spot here – they face a moral imperative to do something, but every option is risky (even and especially non-action). Hybrid policies that combine free market principles with taxation, like the one McKibbin and Wilcoxen suggest, help to hedge the risks of uncertainty by drawing from the virtues of both kinds of pollution abatement systems. But ultimately there is no substitute for knowing.

Moreover, policies like a pollution tax or a cap and trade system are fundamentally utilitarian. Perhaps a pragmatic tendency, policymakers like to look at the costs and benefits (today’s “utles”) of pollution abatement so to maximize efficiency in our use of resources. But it’s not clear that what is counted is everything that counts. Often cost-benefit analyses will altogether exclude any measure of nature’s intrinsic value rather than risk using an over or under estimation.

Even valuations of ecosystem services are inherently instrumental in their thinking. Despite sometimes including recreational enjoyment or aesthetics in ecosystem services accounting, each aspect is merely quantified and then considered only in terms of its utility. Regulatory decision-making processes tend to omit the entire dimension of intrinsicity in moral reasoning, and so, again, we encounter another informational deficiency that policymakers must confront.

In turn, there are several moral questions at work. How far should policymakers nudge our behavior when they themselves don’t have the information needed to understand the reality on the ground? What role should intrinsic value play in policymaking? How should we weigh the risks of acting without knowing against the risks of doing nothing? And how much information should businesses be allowed to withhold from policymakers in the name of proprietary knowledge?

Without complete information (or as complete as possible) to guide the policymaking process, moral nudges such as pollution taxes are like regulatory swings in the dark – we may miss the target entirely, and we may do more damage than good. But that’s not to say we should resign ourselves to inaction. On the contrary, doing nothing might prove more harmful than landing off the mark. We must simply keep in mind that we live in a world of imperfect information and knowledge, and that these are the conditions we must make decisions within. In the meantime we can take solace in Levi’s assessment that a carbon tax, should we go that route, will have constitutional precedent.

JM Kincaid

See this post also on the CSID blog.