The LCGC Blog: The Need for Open, Civilized, and Scientific Discussion About Responsible Shale Energy Extraction

Mar 31, 2017

We do not receive many Christmas cards at the Collaborative Laboratories for Environmental Analysis and Remediation (CLEAR; http://clear.uta.edu) at The University of Texas at Arlington, and that is just the way we like it. For the past several years, we have been working hard to establish our consortium of researchers as an objective and unbiased source of information regarding the potential environmental impacts of unconventional oil and gas extraction (UOG) activities. Further, we are not simply involved with finding problems; we are developing a substantial portfolio and expertise in the creation and assessment of novel remediation technologies to reduce environmental contamination and waste from the UOG process. I have written previously about occupying the middle ground in the debate over the environmental implications of UOG operations (1). It seems we are just in the right place, when we are criticized and praised at separate times by proponents of both extreme views—namely those who think UOG is perfectly safe and those who think it cannot be done without ruining the environment.

To open a fruitful and productive dialogue—in contrast to passive-aggressive posts on social media or back-room communications designed to foster doubt about sound and honest science—CLEAR has partnered with Earth Day Texas and the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation to organize the first annual Responsible Shale Energy Extraction symposium (RSEE, www.shalescience.org). It will take place as part of Earth Day Texas 2017 on the Dallas Fairgrounds, April 21–22, 2017. This unique event will pull scientists together with concerned citizens, regulators, oil and gas operators, and technology developers to have an honest series of discussions about environmental stewardship within the shale energy sector. There is an exceptional lineup of speakers, including many nationally renowned voices, collectively representing opinions from all sides of the issue.

In the wake of the public announcement of this conference (2), some groups and companies have voiced their displeasure with the concept of the conference or questioned the ability of our group to lead such an effort. While people can have their opinions about where they stand on the subject of UOG, it is more disconcerting to have influential people trying to discredit our work and to attempt to inhibit our ability to continue this research. I almost wrote “openly discredit,” but that would not be completely accurate. Communications from some on the environmental side on social media border on libel, but lack any specific criticisms. “I have already discredited their work in a prior piece.” What is that supposed to mean? Some environmental activists have called for a boycott of the conference. What is the argument for boycotting honest science? In another instance, it was relayed to us that a major industrial player has delivered an extensive dissertation to colleagues of ours on why our work could not be trusted. This information was not sent to us, so that we could respond and discuss their concerns in a civilized fashion, but rather to a third party. We have been communicated some idea of the nature of the content, but have not yet been given the opportunity to respond directly. Spirited debates about data and interpretations can be very healthy in science; however, baseless ad hominem attacks provide no societal value and can really undermine the populace’s trust in neutral, objective, and unbiased scientific research.

Earning a PhD in chemistry does not prepare you for this kind of attack. Don’t get me wrong—one of the biggest lessons learned in earning the PhD is how to defend your work, but only to attacks from seasoned and respected scientists who know their stuff. There is no agenda in the PhD curriculum for dealing with defamation. The only desire is to ensure that you have done the work correctly, interpreted it correctly, and reported it correctly. To be sure, academic scientists are used to dealing with failure. Hours writing grant proposals can be shot down with one or two critical comments. Experiments do not always work. Even so, when we carry out our research, it is with the utmost care and ethical considerations, especially with regard to objectively interpreting the results to draw conclusions.

My research group at U.T. Arlington has over 100 peer-reviewed publications to its credit. All of the work that we perform with regard to the environmental impacts of UOG or the remediation of contamination events is peer-reviewed and published in top quality journals. This publication record is not something that I would normally feel the need to point out to professionals familiar with our work, but I do feel that it is a markedly distinguishing characteristic in the research in question. What published research will the nay-sayers base their argument upon? I will admit that the peer-review process is not perfect, but it is a real check on quality by those who understand the details. It is essential for the progress of science. In my opinion, those who want to throw stones have no ammunition unless they are standing on a pile of peer-reviewed publications.

We began working on this research because we saw a gap in the knowledge base, and an opportunity to contribute by using our extensive expertise and analytical resources. We believe that we have walked the fine line of objectivity between extremist views. We are now in an excellent position to bring both sides together to have meaningful discussions. We will plan to facilitate the dialogue this year and beyond, as long as we have the support to do so. Importantly, we invite anyone who would like to learn more, or to contribute to the discussion, to join us at RSEE in Dallas. We will be happy to take that opportunity to defend our science from baseless attacks, or we can have a more civilized discussion about how a technology that is not going away anytime soon can be performed in the most environmentally responsible way possible.

 

Acknowledgment

I want to thank my friend and colleague Dr. Zac Hildenbrand for helping me craft this text.

 

References

  1. K.A. Schug, “The Middle Ground on Unconventional Oil and Gas Development (aka ‘Fracking’) Is a Lonely Place,” The LCGC Blog. May 11, 2016. http://www.chromatographyonline.com/middle-ground-unconventional-oil-and-gas-development-aka-fracking-lonely-place
  2. http://www.uta.edu/news/releases/2017/03/Schug-Earthday-drilling.php

 

Kevin A. Schug is a Full Professor and Shimadzu Distinguished Professor of Analytical Chemistry in the Department of Chemistry & Biochemistry at The University of Texas (UT) at Arlington. He joined the faculty at UT Arlington in 2005 after completing a Ph.D. in Chemistry at Virginia Tech under the direction of Prof. Harold M. McNair and a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Vienna under Prof. Wolfgang Lindner. Research in the Schug group spans fundamental and applied areas of separation science and mass spectrometry. Schug was named the LCGCEmerging Leader in Chromatography in 2009 and the 2012 American Chemical Society Division of Analytical Chemistry Young Investigator in Separation Science. He is a fellow of both the U.T. Arlington and U.T. System-Wide Academies of Distinguished Teachers.

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