To make intelligent decisions about the future of energy, we need to think big-picture—to look carefully at the benefits and costs to human life of every course of action. Unfortunately, in today’s energy debate we are taught, with politically incorrect forms of energy such as fossil fuels, to only look at the negative picture—often highly exaggerated or taken out of context.
There are at least four common fallacies used to discourage big-picture thinking and breed opposition to fossil fuels. These are things to be on the lookout for when you follow the cultural debate; they are everywhere, and all four are used to attack what might be the most important technology of our generation: shale energy aka “fracking.”
1. The Abuse-Use Fallacy
The largest fossil fuel controversy today, besides the broader climate change issue, is fracking—shorthand for hydraulic fracturing—one of several key technologies for getting oil and gas out of dense shale rock, resources that exist in enormous quantities but had previously been inaccessible at low cost.
Fracking has gotten attention, not primarily because of the productivity revolution it has created, but because of concerns about groundwater contamination. The leading source of this view is celebrity filmmaker Josh Fox’s Gasland (so-called) documentaries on HBO. Looking at how these movies have affected public opinion is an instructive exercise. Both Gasland movies follow a similar three-part formula. First, Fox tells a sad story about a family undergoing a problem, usually with their drinking water. “When we turn on the tap, the water reeks of hydrocarbons and chemicals,” says John Fenton of Pavillion, Wyoming. Then Fox blames it on the oil and gas industry’s use of fracking—without exploring any alternative explanations, such as the fact that methane and other substances often naturally seep into groundwater. This is the false-attribution fallacy, which I’ll discuss in a minute.
Even if Fox’s examples were true, it would be illegitimate of him to conclude what he concludes today and what “fracktivists” demand—that fracking, and really all oil and gas drilling, should be illegal, as if any technology that can be misused should be outlawed.
Any technology can be abused. As we have seen, people are dying right now because of bad practices in the wind turbine production chain. It is irrational to say that because a technology or practice can be abused, it ought not be used.
I call this the abuse-use fallacy. It is a blueprint for opposing any technology. For example, Fox could make Carland, which could show car crashes and then blame all of them on “Big Auto.” Then he could argue that because car crashes are possible, we don’t need cars. In fact, Fox could make a far more alarming movie than Gasland based on supposedly risk-free solar and wind technology. Imagine a scene at a rare-earth mine in a movie called Wasteland.
Defenders of fracking often point out that the “abusers” Fox cites are false attributions—the next fallacy we’ll discuss. But the pattern of argument would be wrong even if Fox wasn’t fabricating particular abuses; individual abuses do not prove that an entire technology should not be used—they prove it should not be abused.
The abuse-use fallacy is deadly because it can be used to attack anything a group opposes. As citizens, we hate to see even one coal mine accident, one spill of hazardous liquids, or one example of industry corruption, but we must use that feeling to advocate for proper laws and best practices, not to drive us to outlaw crucial technologies.
2. The False-Attribution Fallacy
False attribution is claiming that one event causes another, devoid of proof. For example, in Gasland, Josh Fox famously showed people lighting their water on fire—a phenomenon that, unknown to many, is a frequent natural occurrence almost always stemming from the natural presence of methane (natural gas) in the water. But it gets falsely attributed to fracking, as do many groundwater problems that are actually due to natural contamination of standard water wells.
A U.S. Geological Survey study conducted between 1991 and 2004 examined the quality of water from domestic wells and found: “More than one in five (23 percent) of the sampled wells contained one or more contaminants at a concentration greater than a human-health benchmark. . . . Contaminants most often found at concentrations greater than human-health benchmarks were inorganic chemicals, with all but nitrate derived primarily from natural sources.” In other words, more than one in five wells are naturally contaminated according to our government’s standards. Yet we are taught to treat “natural” water as clean and blame all dirty water on industry, especially the fossil fuel industry.
Attributing water issues to fracking is almost always disingenuous. Here’s the truth about groundwater. Every technology uses raw materials that must be mined from the ground, and anytime we drill or mine or dig underground, groundwater can be compromised. Of all the things you can do underground, fracking is the least likely to affect groundwater, because it takes place thousands of feet away from it. As President Obama’s former EPA administrator Lisa Jackson acknowledged, there is no “proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water. . . .”
If an oil company causes contamination at a fracked oil or gas well, it almost certainly has nothing to do with the fracking element of the process, but rather something near the groundwater, such as a surface spill of oil or some other liquid. So why single out fracking? Because attacks on fossil fuels thrive on technophobia—the fear of new technology—which is exploited by using unfamiliar, unknown terms like fracking. If Fox had opposed drilling, he wouldn’t have gotten very far, because the public knows that, while accidents can happen while drilling, drilling itself is a vital human activity.
A more sophisticated version of false attribution uses prestigious studies based on speculative models. Just as climate discussions today are governed by speculative models whose (in) validity is rarely specified, so are pollution discussions. Regulators often use models that assert unprovable relationships between tiny amounts of particulate emissions and health problems.
The evidence is brought to us via “studies,” cited by news media eager to run dramatic, “if it bleeds it leads” headlines. The main thing to watch out for here is a statement like “X causes Y”—e.g., “coal causes asthma.” That’s usually an oversimplification at best; often it’s completely bogus. It’s hard to prove cause and effect. Here’s a good question to ask when you encounter these kinds of claims: “Could you explain how you prove that—how you know that coal in particular caused asthma instead of everything else that might have caused it?” Usually the answer is no.
Let’s look briefly at the claim that coal causes asthma problems through power plants’ emission of particulate matter (PM).
Asthma or chronic respiratory disease has become more prevalent in Western countries. That has triggered a variety of theories about the causes. Claims about decreasing air quality or increasing exposure to toxins do not stand up, as the increase in prevalence seems to be strongest in countries with much improved environmental quality; for example, wealthier, cleaner West Germany had more asthma problems than poorer, dirtier East Germany.
To put it in reverse, countries with higher pollution levels have systematically shown lower rates of chronic respiratory diseases like asthma. Something like asthma is a complex issue, and to use it to attack coal is to attack the health of everyone.
Or take mercury. Here’s a summary of the typical argument about coal and mercury: Coal naturally contains mercury, a neurotoxin that can damage the nervous system, the brain, and other organs. When we burn coal, that mercury gets released into the atmosphere and ultimately rains down into bodies of water. This leads to higher mercury levels in fish, which lead to higher mercury levels in our bodies when we eat fish. Those levels are dangerous, particularly to the fetuses of pregnant women, whose children can experience developmental problems and learning disabilities. Therefore, coal is a massive threat to public health.
But here’s the full context.
Mercury, a metal element, exists naturally throughout the world, most notably in the oceans, which contain an estimated 40 million to 200 million tons of mercury, as well as in most forms of plant and animal life. Mercury is released into the air by volcanoes, wildfires, and in far lesser quantities, the burning of coal. Natural causes of mercury are why the region of the United States with the highest mercury levels is the Southwest, whereas there are much lower levels in coal-heavy West Virginia and Kentucky.
Mercury, like any substance, is toxic in certain forms and doses and harmless in others. The form of mercury that is of particular concern to human health is called methylmercury (or monomethylmercury), a combination of mercury, carbon, and hydrogen. Discussions of “mercury poisoning” are misleading, because mercury becomes methylmercury only under certain conditions, and methylmercury can be absorbed by human beings in relevant quantities only under certain conditions; for example, the element selenium seems to prevent the absorption of methylmercury. (Read more about mercury here and here).
To be sure, negative cause-and-effect relationships do exist between fossil fuel emissions and human health—in certain concentrations and in certain contexts—but this doesn’t appear to be one of them. Which brings us to the no-threshold fallacy.
3. The No-Threshold Fallacy
All things are poison and nothing [is] without poison; only the dosage determines that something is not a poison.
—Paracelsus, sixteenth century
The world around us and our own bodies consist of chemicals. All of them, without a single exception, can be poisonous to us if we are exposed to them in a certain concentration (which can be too high or too low) or in a certain form.
A simple example of this is medication. In the right concentration, a given hormone, heavy metal, or complex organic molecule can be lifesaving or can treat some nasty symptoms of a disease. Antibiotics are essentially poisons to microorganisms inside our bodies. If we take too much of certain drugs, we will die immediately.
The same is true for all substances in our bodies. Inside our bone tissue, for instance, there is a radioactive potassium isotope in a low concentration. Even pure water, which is the main constituent of our bodies, is a potential threat to our health. Drinking too much distilled water is dangerous because mineral-poor water entering our metabolism causes a mineral imbalance on the cellular level. On the other hand, pouring distilled, mineral-poor water on our skin is no threat.
A poison or pollutant is always a combination of substance and dose. If someone mentions just a substance to scare you, independent of the context or the dose, he has given you meaningless, misleading information. He is assuming or expecting you to assume that if a substance is dangerous in some dosage, it is dangerous in all dosages. One variant of this argument used to attack shale energy is the claim that fracking causes earthquakes. This assertion is true in that fracking causes some amount of underground, Earth-moving activity, but in almost all cases, it is completely inconsequential and not even discernible at the surface. A typical tremor that can be caused by hydraulic fracturing is −2 on the Richter scale, a “quake” that is not felt at the surface, causes no damage, and can be measured only deep underground. Such quakes are occurring continuously throughout the Earth, fracking or no fracking.
What about a worst-case scenario? Many say that it’s between 3 and 4 on the Richter scale, which means you can feel the quake but it’s unlikely strong enough to cause damage. And this is an incredibly unlikely scenario. For this we are supposed to ban all fracking?
Even if fracking in a certain place had a high risk of a truly dangerous earthquake—say, because it is near some seismically vulnerable area—that is an argument against fracking in that particular place, not an argument against fracking as such.
When one treats something as poisonous regardless of dosage, he is denying the existence of a threshold at which a substance goes from being benign to harmful. If you deny a threshold, you can make a case for banning anything.
The no-threshold fallacy was used particularly insidiously in opposing nuclear power. People said we should have zero tolerance for radiation—not knowing, apparently, that the potassium in their bone tissue emits radiation, enough so that sleeping with a spouse gives you almost as much radiation as standing right outside a nuclear power plant. Both activities are nowhere near harmful.
“No-threshold” plus “false-attribution” is a dangerous combination in the hands of activists and regulators. They can keep claiming that nothing is clean enough and keep passing laws that regulate vital technologies, such as coal, out of existence. As always, whether we are talking about a natural substance or a man-made substance, our standard needs to be human life. That determines the threshold of danger.
4. The “Artificial” Fallacy
One of the big accusations against fracking is that it “uses chemicals.” This is a funny way of putting it. Everything in our world uses chemicals, because our world is made of chemical elements.
The accusation is implying that fracking uses “artificial” or man-made chemicals, and the accusation assumes, and expects us to assume, that man-made means dangerous.
But it is simply untrue that “natural” is safe and man-made is unsafe. For example, fossil fuels are natural, organic, plant-based fuels whose pollution challenges stem from natural ingredients like sulfur and nitrogen and heavy metals. Arsenic and cyanide are natural substances, and many natural plants are poisonous.
The fact that we didn’t make something shouldn’t make us feel safe. And the fact that something is made in a laboratory shouldn’t make us afraid. With every substance, we need to look at its nature and dosage in the context of human life.
One additional note: It especially doesn’t make sense to be biased against man-made things, because they are deliberately made by a human mind, usually to promote human life. While man-made things can be bad, it is perverse to single out the man-made as bad per se. To be against the man-made as such is to have a bias against the mind-made, which is to be against the human mind, whose very purpose is to figure out how to transform our environment to meet our needs.