30 Years of Junk Science, from SDI to Fracking: How politics and ideology combat scientific innovations and economic development
30 Years of Junk Science, from SDI to Fracking
How politics and ideology combat scientific innovations and economic development (Green Watch, April 2013 – PDF here)
By Kevin Mooney
Summary: The politicization of science, and leftists’ use of pseudoscience, can be traced back many decades, notably to the Left’s false attacks 30 years ago on President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Today, politicized science and anti-American ideology combine to frustrate natural gas development and other innovations that could help the nation be stronger and more secure. The biggest losers include average Americans who would benefit directly from fracking.
Would you like to build a pipeline that would extend from a safe, friendly region of world to parts of rural America in need of jobs? Or use innovative drilling techniques to free natural gas that was previously inaccessible? Or apply high-tech agriculture to arid, semi-desert regions in order to boost living standards?
Try advancing any of these policy aims and you can expect to run into “green” roadblocks. Almost any policy that advances America’s geopolitical interests and economic well-being is now attacked as inconsistent with protecting the environment.
Consider the case of farmers, business owners, and other average citizens living in the Marcellus Shale region that includes the Southern Tier and Finger Lakes regions of New York, northern and western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, western Maryland, and much of West Virginia and western Virginia. They’re sitting atop untold wealth—natural gas resources that could give the U.S. clean, cheap energy—yet standing in their way are elite environmentalists who twist science to stop development of these abundant resources.
Today, the process of hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) is under a moratorium in New York and could potentially be derailed or slowed in Pennsylvania, thanks to a pressure campaign fueled by junk science. It’s a process that can be traced back decades, and that includes, of all things, President Reagan’s proposal to build a shield against nuclear missiles.
More on missile defense later. First, here’s what happening in New York with regard to fracking. Until a few months ago, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) appeared set to delegate decisions on fracking to localities. But after missing a February 27 deadline to finalize regulations for that process, Cuomo declared that the state’s health commissioner, Nirav Shah, should not be rushed into making a decision. Shah has been “studying” the potential impact fracking might have on human health since last September.
“People say you should rush; I’m not going to rush anyone,” Cuomo said during a press conference. “If the health commissioner says he needs more time to come to an intelligent conclusion, then he needs more time to come to an intelligent conclusion.”
Financially, the decision should be easy. New York’s budget deficit hovers around $8 billion, and several recent studies, including one from University of Wyoming economist Timothy Considine, concluded that fracking would yield $1.7 billion in additional economic activity and $214 million in extra tax revenue in 2015. Between 2011 and 2020, New York could gain $11.4 billion in economic output and $1.4 billion in tax revenues.
The example set by neighboring Pennsylvania creates political challenges for Gov. Cuomo. Almost 239,000 direct and indirect jobs across Pennsylvania are supported by the natural gas industry, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. A recent study projects that by 2020 the state could supply a quarter of the nation’s natural gas. The authors, who are connected with Penn State’s Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering, wrote: “Our estimates suggest that in 2020 the Marcellus industry in Pennsylvania could be creating more than $20 billion in value added, generating $2 billion in state and local tax revenues, and supporting more than 250,000 jobs.”
So what’s the hold-up in New York? Politics, environmental pressure groups, and junk science.
Last summer, New York Residents Against Drilling and other green groups sent a letter to Gov. Cuomo’s top 1,000 individual donors, urging them to exert pressure on the governor. It appears to have worked. Cuomo earned praise from his former brother-in-law Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who now heads up a “green” group known as the Waterkeeper Alliance. “I was impressed that they weren’t just holding their finger up and looking at the political winds and which way the political winds were blowing, but they were actually reading science,” Kennedy said.
With regard to fracking, Tom Shepstone, the campaign director for the Northeast Marcellus Initiative (NMI), an industry-supported group, points out that “there are a few wealthy families in upstate New York with strong political connections who are looking to keep the state impoverished without any development, for selfish reasons.” Shepstone identified wealthy residents of Livingstone Manor in Sullivan County, which is home to Rockefeller family members, along with such notables as former CBS anchorman Dan Rather and Ramsay Adams, founder and executive director of Catskill Mountainkeeper. Ramsay is often quoted as a spokesman for anti-frackers, claiming falsely that fracking is unsafe. (By the way, his father, John Adams, is co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), which helped lead the fight during the Cold War to deny reports of Soviet clients using chemical-biological weapons to commit genocide in Laos.)
Cuomo does the bidding of well-funded, politically connected activists. It’s difficult to overstate their influence. When a few small towns in the northern region of the Delaware River Basin (DRB) passed a pro-natural gas resolution, they ran into stiff opposition from the NRDC. The Town of Sanford in Broome County and the Towns of Delaware and Fremont in Sullivan County each have a budget of just a few million dollars. By comparison, the NRDC spent over $105 million in 2011 and has almost $200 million in net assets. It also has 350 lawyers, scientists, and “other professionals” at its beck and call. That’s what you call a lopsided fight.
Meanwhile, the Sierra Club has launched a new campaign called “Beyond Natural Gas.” In an interview with the National Journal, the group’s executive director, Michael Brune, said, “We’re going to be preventing new gas plants from being built wherever we can.” A Sierra Club website declares: “The natural gas industry is dirty, dangerous and running amok” and “The closer we look at natural gas, the dirtier it appears; and the less of it we burn, the better off we will be.”
For now, it appears that a plurality of Americans supports fracking even in New York. A Quinnipiac University poll in December 2012 found that by 44 to 42 percent New Yorkers believe the economic advantages of hydraulic fracturing outweigh any potential environmental side effects. But the pro-fracking side is not as well-funded and as well-organized as the anti-frackers. When two sides in a controversy are closely matched, the side that’s better funded and organized usually wins.
Cornell University has received $208,000 to fund studies that are set up to cast hydraulic fracturing in a bad light. The source of that money is the Park Foundation, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit donor based in Ithaca, N.Y., which also funds environmentalist groups opposed to natural gas development. So far, the Park Foundation is receiving a substantial return on its investment: Its Cornell studies, which are almost always accepted uncritically by the media and policymakers, have played a major role in blocking fracking in New York.
Jon Entine, a senior fellow at the Center for Health & Risk Communications at George Mason University, reports frequently on anti-shale findings that have been challenged and debunked by well-credentialed scientists and researchers. In his columns, he identifies Cornell University as “ground-zero” for the scientific distortions that have penetrated public consciousness.
Entine has identified Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology, as the central player at Cornell. Howarth claims that shale gas unleashes more greenhouse gas emissions than coal does. Beginning in spring 2011, his conclusions received extensive coverage in the New York Times and in publications overseas. But the idea that greenhouse emissions from shale gas exceed those from coal is dead wrong, according to independent researchers. Even some of his own Cornell colleagues, such as Lawrence Cathles, a professor in the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department, have vigorously challenged the anti-shale conclusions. (Cathles: “Natural gas is widely considered to be an environmentally cleaner fuel than coal because it does not produce detrimental by-products such as sulfur, mercury, ash and particulates and because it provides twice the energy per unit of weight with half the carbon footprint during combustion. These points are not in dispute.”)
Researchers with the Environmental Defense Fund, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the U.S. Energy Department have “slammed Howarth’s conclusions,” Entine noted in a column for Forbes. “Within the field, Howarth is considered an activist, not an independent scientist,” Entine observed. “But you’d never know that reading the Times’ fracking coverage.”
Even Arthur Brisbane, then the newspaper’s public editor, scored the Times for its biased reporting on fracking. “From a scientific perspective, no reason exists to even suspect unknown health or environmental issues will turn up because hydraulic fracturing is not a new technology,” Entine explained. “It has been perfected over decades and tweaked in recent years to horizontally access deeply buried shale gas.”
The fracking process begins with the creation of water pressure mixed with a small fraction of chemicals pumped into wells at least 3,000 feet below the surface, which is far below the water table. This mix of soapy water creates fractures in the rock that allow the oil and natural gas to escape so it can flow out of the well.
Entine asked, “When will we see [in the Times] the investigative piece airing the dirty linen that led to Howarth’s rigged study, including the funding stream from the Park Foundation, which yearly gives millions of dollars to media organizations and community groups targeted specifically to undermine America’s goal to reach a balanced energy future?”
In the past, some environmentalists supported the development of natural gas, which, by their own standards, is far cleaner than other hydrocarbon energy sources, cleaner even than some “green” technology such as electric cars (which, at this point, are charged with electricity generated mostly from coal). Now, however, the environmental movement is vehemently anti-natural gas. Why? For one thing, the movement has invested a good deal of political capital—and economic capital from taxpayers—into so-called renewable technology that could be abandoned as fracking gains acceptance. If, in decades to come, the fracking revolution continues to bring down the price of mainstream energy, that will eliminate any hope that highly expensive forms of energy such as wind and solar can be made economically viable.
And there’s another reason for environmentalists’ opposition to fracking. You might call it patriotism-in-reverse.
“U.S.A. Number One”—Not
“I see tremendous geopolitical ramifications flowing from the natural gas revolution that will be enormously beneficial to the United States and to other democracies,” Shepstone said. “But there are a lot of people out there, including many Americans, who do not want us to be Number One. These are the intellectuals who hold a European view of American power. They view America as the cowboy. They are very pampered insulated people who don’t really understand the world.”
European-style pseudo-intellectuals don’t want the U.S. to succeed—something they have in common with, for example, the United Arab Emirates and Russia.
The recent Matt Damon film Promised Land told the clichéd story of an evil fracking company trying to get rich by bamboozling naïve locals until, one day, a company man has a change of heart and becomes a whistleblower. It was, in essence, a fictionalized version of the pseudo-documentary Gasland, the anti-fracking film that won a 2011 Emmy for documentary direction and an Oscar nomination for best documentary. Damon’s movie, it turned out, was financed in part by the United Arab Emirates, which has a strong interest in keeping America dependent on Middle Eastern oil. (The revelation about the UAE’s role in financing Promised Land came soon after the news that former Vice President Al Gore received, for his share of the network Current TV, $100 million from Al Jazeera, a TV network created by the government of Qatar.)
Some have suggested the Russian government might be involved in the anti-fracking campaign in the U.S. It would be surprising if it were not, given the track record of Russia and the old Soviet Union for covert interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, formerly of the KGB, is a proponent of the concept of “national champions”—of the government and major corporations acting hand-in-glove. This idea, also known as “public-private partnership,” “crony capitalism,” or fascism, has enabled well-connected Russians to become billionaires in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Empire. The company Gazrom (Gazovaya Promyshlennost, or “Gas Industry”) was created when the Soviet Union’s Ministry of Gas Industry was “privatized” and ended up in the hands of members of the political elite and, mostly, the Russian government. Today, it’s the world’s largest extractor of natural gas, and the dependency on Russian gas of much of Europe is critical to Russia in terms of both wealth and power. So Putin and the Russian ruling class have a compelling interest in blocking the development of natural gas resources in the U.S.
Bonner Cohen, a senior fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR), has a keen understanding of the history. “After World War II, the United States sought the economic recovery of Europe through what came to be known as the Marshall Plan,” he said. “It was offered not only to Western Europe, but to Eastern Europe, then under Soviet occupation, and to the USSR. Joseph Stalin’s Kremlin vetoed the communist block’s participation in the Marshall Plan, thereby denying tens of millions of Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgarians, East Germans, Russians, Ukrainians, and other people under Soviet control the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of post-war recovery.”
Cohen notes that, “Today, Vladimir Putin’s Russia is funding an anti-shale-gas PR campaign throughout Europe, including in countries like Poland and Bulgaria, both with shale deposits, that are former Soviet satellites. The Kremlin wants to maintain its near monopoly on natural gas sales to Europe and seeks to squelch any competition emanating from shale gas formations in Europe. The Russian-funded anti-fracking campaign in Europe echoes the disinformation spread by environmentalists in the U.S. and elsewhere.”
Regardless of whether they fund any particular campaign directly, the Russians have always been able to find ivory-tower academics willing to side with them in any dispute with the West, especially with the U.S. From bogus allegations of U.S. biological warfare in Korea, to the cover-up of the Soviet’s own biological warfare program and of the use of chemical weapons against the Hmong people of Southeast Asia; from the fake statistics used to stop atmospheric nuclear testing, to the “nuclear winter” hoax, to claims that missile defense is impossible—whenever the Russians/Soviets have needed support from academic “experts,” they have received it. Fracking is just the latest example of academic foolishness that plays into the hands of anti-U.S. interests.
Academics vs. science
Jim Holstun, an English professor at the University at Buffalo – The State University of New York (known as SUNY Buffalo), appears to be part of that process. Holstun is part of a group formed last year called the University at Buffalo Coalition for Leading Ethically in Academic Research. He helped lead a successful effort to shut down the Shale Resources and Society Institute at the university. After the university issued a report that concluded shale drilling was, in fact, safe, Holstun claimed the report was biased in favor of industry. In a letter to the campus last year, SUNY President Satish K. Tripathi explained that it became necessary to shut down the Institute since it lacked a “sufficient” faculty presence. He had received a petition signed by over 10,000 professors, students, and some SUNY trustees opposed to the Institute.
“The people who signed the petition feel that their public university needs to remain a public university and not a mouthpiece for corporations,” Holstun told the New York Times. The reporting from the Institute “reflected the interests of gas companies, and not serious scholarship.”
Although seed money for the Institute was taken from the college’s discretionary budget, the Institute did seek out support from the oil and gas industry later, and the authors of the pro-drilling study do have connections to the oil and gas industry. To Holstun and others like him, any effort that is funded and supported by American industry is illegitimate.
Of course, real science is based on replicable experimentation and observation. The foundation of science is that others can repeat a study and see if they get the same results. In real science, the bias of the scientist shouldn’t matter, as long as other scientists can replicate research, compare the findings, and settle differences through vigorous debate. In that context, whether a scientist has received grants or consulting fees from gas companies, tobacco companies, the former KGB, or the devil himself shouldn’t matter, as long as his or her numbers hold up to scrutiny. Yet left-wing academics are quick to engage in ad hominem attacks on any scientist or researcher who comes to a conclusion that runs counter to the agenda of the Left.
Dennis Holbrook, an attorney with Norse Energy, added some much needed perspective when he was questioned by Holstun in Buffalo during a screening of Truthland, a film that examines and debunks the alarmist claims in Gasland. Questioning Holbrook, Holstun attacked the relationship between Norse Energy and the University of Buffalo. Holbrook was having none of it. “Since there is a natural tendency out there to be skeptical of industry,” he said, Norse Energy felt it important to “give academia an opportunity to have the facts and to reach conclusions that would be able to instill greater confidence in the public…. Einstein could be up here discussing the theories of relativity, and there are those of you, if he was up here sponsored by industry would be questioning him.”
Professor Holstun certainly has his own biases. On his website, he declares: “My work is Marxist, and I think Marxist theory and political practice are more relevant now than ever, given the global dominance of the capitalist mode of production and American imperialism. During the last decade or so, I’ve moved from a new historicist approach based in post-structuralist theory to a Marxist history-from-below approach based in the British Marxist historians, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Ernst Bloch, among others. This approach argues that theoretical consciousness is by no means the monopoly of professors, but is to be found at work in human activity as such, even (or especially) among exploited workers.”
Holstun is part of a long, sorry tradition of the politicization of science. For example, as Green Watch editor Steven J. Allen has reported, the top U.S. scientific organization, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), had a longtime relationship as a “sister organization” with the American Association of Scientific Workers (AASW), a Soviet front group that, during the time of the Hitler-Stalin alliance, backed Hitler and opposed aid to Great Britain. Dr. Allen has identified seven presidents of AAAS from the period 1931-1951 who were also members of the Soviet-front AASW, including three men who served as presidents of both organizations.
AAAS is highly influential. The current science advisor to President Obama is a former AAAS president, John Holdren, a Global Warming activist who wrote favorably in a 1977 book about such methods of “population control” as forced abortions and involuntary sterilization. (He suggested, though, that the government could legitimately put sterilizing chemicals in the water supply only if that could be accomplished without affecting “members of the opposite sex, children, old people, pets, or livestock.”)
Then there’s the so-called Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), which is often quoted by the media as if it were a scientific, rather than political, organization. For one thing, UCS is in no sense an organization of scientists. Anyone willing to charge $35 on a credit card can join. One intrepid researcher even signed up his dog to drive the point home. The dog, Kenji, received a welcome kit and a signed letter from UCS President Kevin Knobloch.
UCS was founded at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an outgrowth of the so-called “March 4th Movement,” which sought to prevent academics and scientists from working on classified research or on any form of research for the U.S. government. On March 4, 1969, students and professors at MIT organized what they termed a “Research Stoppage” demonstration, expressing concern over the “dangerous usage of research and scientific technologies”—dangerous, that is, if those technologies are in the hands of the U.S. government.
Since 1969, UCS has stood at the forefront of the politicization of science. In 1983, President Reagan proposed the missile defense program known as the Strategic Defense Initiative. Critics ridiculed SDI as “Star Wars,” and UCS issued a report by astronomer and TV personality Carl Sagan and several MIT professors that purported to prove missile defense was unworkable and would destabilize the world, perhaps leading to nuclear war. (In 1984, Sagan and other prominent scientists-activists signed a newspaper ad describing President Reagan as the “performing star” of “Far-Rightists.” Reagan, they said, was a man whose campaign exuded “a scent of fascism in the air.”) UCS characterized missile defense as a virtual impossibility, akin to “hitting a bullet with a bullet.” SDI “is another wonder weapon,” declared Dr. Henry Kendall of UCS, and “its benefits are an illusion. It should be stopped.”
As noted by the late Robert Jastrow, a Dartmouth University physics professor who also worked for NASA, UCS and other SDI opponents misled the press and the public by greatly exaggerating the number of orbiting satellites that would be required for such a defense. The UCS report concluded that 2,400 satellites would be required for a ballistic-missile defense. But later in congressional testimony, a representative lowered the organization’s estimate to 800. The revisions didn’t stop there. The group later reduced the figure further to 300, then to 162. Oops. UCS’s claims that the available computing power would be insufficient to support a missile defense system proved equally foolish. Computers today are roughly half a million times as powerful as those that existed at the time of President Reagan’s proposal, a development that was entirely foreseeable.
Of course, the idea that missile defense is impossible has gone into the dustbin of history next to New York Times predictions that it would take a million years for man to achieve powered flight and that space rockets would never work because they wouldn’t have air to push against. No one today doubts that missile defense will be a major factor in the future of national security. The threat (to aggressors) of a missile shield in Europe was real enough that President Obama surrendered it as part of his “reset” of relations with Putin and the Russians, double-crossing our Polish and Czech allies in the process. Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile defense, which was used recently to stop Hamas rocket attacks, has been described as a “game changer.” And in response to reports on the progress of North Korea’s ballistic nuclear missile program, the U.S. is now deploying missile defenses in Alaska that President Obama had previously blocked.
In the decades since the SDI proposal, UCS continued its war on science. Notably, in 1992, the group put together a “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” that combined doomsday demagoguery with pseudoscience. In apocalyptic terms, the statement invoked such then-fashionable dangers to humanity as ozone depletion, acid rain, and the “irreversible loss of species, which by 2100 may reach one-third of all species now living.” In a manner reminiscent of the eugenicists of the 1920s and ’30s, the UCS statement declared that we face “unrestrained population growth” and warned that, “If we are to halt the destruction of our environment, we must accept limits to that growth.” The UCS added that humanity’s survival depends on foreign aid, “sexual equality,” and abortion.
“We the undersigned, senior members of the world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead.” The UCS “Warning to Humanity” statement is comical, worthy of publication in the satirical newspaper The Onion, but it’s real.
Ike’s second warning
In his farewell address to the nation—the same speech in which he spoke of a “military-industrial complex”—President Eisenhower issued another warning, about a “scientific-technological elite”:
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present—and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.
In the 52 years since Eisenhower’s address, the term “military-industrial complex” has become part of the standard language of politics. Hardly anyone knows that he also warned us about the “scientific-technological elite.” Given the great influence of highly partisan, often radical scientist-activists on the national debate, it’s time for Americans to pay attention to Eisenhower’s second warning.
Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter for several Washington-based publications and for The Pelican Institute.
Flammable water? The truth is “irrelevant”
The movie FrackNation closely examines the rhetoric and factual claims made by anti-drilling activists, particularly that of a left-wing filmmaker, Josh Fox, as expressed in his 2010 documentary Gasland. Once again, the Park Foundation figures into the equation: it donated $75,000 to Fox’s production company to fund a promotional campaign for Gasland.
The husband-wife team of Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney collaborated together on FrackNation to expose the “junk science” underpinning the propaganda funded in part by the Park Foundation. A key moment in Gasland comes when activists dramatize their case against scientific progress by lighting water on fire and then falsely blaming fracking for the blaze.
During a press conference held in Chicago after a screening of Gasland, McAleer challenged Fox on the facts standing behind the flammable water he highlighted in his film, which focused on households in Colorado. McAleer called attention to a 1976 study by the Colorado Division of Water found the area in question already had gas in the water and that it was the result of natural forces. The report concluded that “troublesome amounts of methane” had been in the water for decades before fracking began.
“Don’t you owe a journalistic duty to show there was a problem with gas in the water before fracking started?” McAleer asked. “Most people watching your film would think lighting your water started with fracking. You said yourself people lit their water long before fracking started, isn’t that correct?”
When pressed, Fox acknowledged this was true, but that it was also “irrelevant.”—KM