“Educating” and Conversing: Patty Limerick on the Fracking Dispute


There is an interesting piece in today’s Perspective in the Denver Post by Patty Limerick, Director of the Center for the American West on electronic education and communication. Not directly related to our usual subjects, but may be of interest to those of you in the education biz. I’ll be taking my first online course in January, so I was particularly interested.

But this reminded me of her earlier piece from a few weeks ago on her work with fracking. I’ve posted links to the Frackingsense podcasts before, and even wrote a post “What if Your Governor Had Worked in Natural Resources,”based on one here.

Here’s an excerpt from the Denver Post op-ed; here’s the link:

Ardent critics, hold your fire for a moment. In making this statement, I have some notable allies who carry a lot more credibility than I do. One has written that the issue of hydraulic fracturing comes with many complications, making “it difficult for someone who knows how complex [the issue] is to take a firm, absolute stance on it. The more you learn, the more you realize how little you know.”

This wise remark appeared in a stack of student-written course papers. Required to attend a public lecture in the Center of the American West’s FrackingSENSE series, my students are assigned to listen to the talk and, afterward, to speak with members of the public seated near them. Many of the papers were charged with the students’ hope that their elders will cut back on the shouting and take part in a civil discussion shaped by the consideration of evidence rather than the denunciation of opponents. How would we pursue this improved conversation? Here are three ideas:

1. We could talk about providing better aim to the concerns, worries, anxieties and fears raised by hydraulic fracturing. Many opponents of the process are preoccupied with the risk of groundwater contamination from compounds in the fracturing fluid that, under high pressure, shatters the shale in which natural gas or oil is “trapped.” This preoccupation is an understandable legacy of the years in which many oil and gas companies refused to disclose the contents of fracturing fluid, a practice that could not have been better designed to foster and maintain public distrust. Fortunately, a shift — produced by regulation and by voluntary action in companies — toward the disclosure of fracturing fluid contents is already well underway.

Moreover, my colleague Joe Ryan, a University of Colorado environmental engineering professor, has laid out a valuable way to appraise the contents of fracturing fluid. Of the nearly 1,000 compounds that have been included in the inventories and lists, Ryan has pointed out, only a limited number have the capability of harming human beings. To pose a danger, these compounds must be hazardous to human health, mobile enough to get to humans, and persistent enough to avoid breaking down to something less hazardous while traveling toward the humans. Identifying compounds with these qualities generates a much shorter set of targets for our wariness.

With more efficient ways to worry, we can direct greater attention to the construction and maintenance of wells, casings, cement, surface storage containers, and mechanisms and equipment on the surface. It is time to think more about the risks posed by leaks and spills on or near the surface, while downsizing worries over the fracturing process that occurs thousands of feet beneath these areas of risk.

Risk = hazard + outrage

2. Our public conversation should attend carefully to the genuine distress triggered by the arrival of oil and gas development in a setting of homes and schools. Consider the insightful formula offered by expert Peter Sandman: “Risk = hazard + outrage.” While the scientists and engineers can help us by collecting data and assessing the physical dimensions and qualities of a hazard, a sense of powerlessness — of being subjected to an un-chosen, involuntary ordeal — is a major driver of worry, stress and fear. The noise, lights, traffic and disruption that come with drilling and production make a dissonant and disorienting addition to life in a town or suburb. Here I propose a simple trade-off for improved conversation: I ask people in the industry to recognize more legitimacy in the concerns of their residential neighbors, and I ask worried residents of the towns and suburbs affected by natural gas production to speak more openly about their communities’ dependence on natural gas for heating and petroleum for transportation.

3. We would all benefit from more modest expectations of the likelihood that scientific findings will, on their own, chart the route to sound decisions and policies. Especially in studies of public health, rather than giving us confident and certain predictions, experts must convey their results in probabilities of risk. The scientists’ mental world involves calculating and estimating the probability of an undesirable thing happening. The public’s mental world accents an entirely different question: “If there is a chance of risk, will I or my family members prove to be the ones injured by that risk?” The scientists are trying to speak in statistical terms about broad populations; a member of the public is asking, “Am I in danger?” In a calm conversation, we can conjure up ways to connect and reconcile these two very different ways of thinking.

Below are some excerpts from her longer paper that I think could equally be true of our usual resource disputes and here is a link..

An Over-Arching Consideration: Giving Up On “Education”

The word “education” is on the verge—or perhaps over the verge—of becoming more trouble than it is worth in the public exchange over natural gas development. All sides declare that it is crucial to “educate” the public. With the rarest exception, “educate the public” can be translated to mean “say or write (or Tweet, or post on Facebook) something to get the public to agree with me.” The phenomenon called “confirmation bias” has a hold on every sector of the population, leading people to appraise new studies and their findings by one criterion, “Does this study confirm what I already believe?” Opening up the framework of public discussion to accommodate more listening and reflection would present a pleasant alternative to the assumption that “education” is a one-way, unilateral process in which one group produces and distributes information and all others simply absorb and believe it.

What I Will Never Forget, and Will Be Telling the Nurses’ Aides in the Assisted Living Place in the Decades Ahead

When you feel a surge of confidence in your ability to predict the future, be humble. Be very humble. Case in point: Ten years ago, the conventional wisdom was that the United States was in a precarious position in energy independence, with a declining rate of production of both natural gas and oil. Recently, the New York Times made this statement: “The United States is set to become the world’s leading producer of natural gas in 2015 and oil in 2017, according to the International Energy Agency (July 27, 2013).” Once-confident prophets of scarcity were shown to have taken a major misstep in their predictions of scarcity. This is a lesson that any individual, trying to envision the future, should keep constantly in mind.

Proprietary, Voluntarily Disclosed Limericks
(No “Halliburton Exemptions” in the World of Doggerel Verse)

Knowledge is tragically lacking
On the complicated practice of fracking.
Convinced they are right,
People rush into fight,
And no agency regulates yakking.

When you try to be neutral on fracking,
You’re a quarterback set up for sacking.
You can assert and declare
That you’re going to be fair,
But you still won’t escape frequent whacking.


  1. “With more efficient ways to worry, we can direct greater attention to the construction and maintenance of wells, casings, cement, surface storage containers, and mechanisms and equipment on the surface.”

    There’s certainly a lot more to “worry” about here than a simple misunderstanding about the (questionable) capacity to engineer our way out of this nightmare affecting tens of thousands of Americans. Such technological fundamentalism inspires me to worry about inviting discussion of the error of peak oil predictions while ignoring the error of peak carbon. (It’s as if irreversible catastrophic climate change were not part of this scenario.) Regardless, I’m confident there will be no shortage of new ways for oil companies to profit from planetary destruction, and no shortage of neoliberal think tanks and foundation funded “science” and “experts” in the service of damage control and public relations for the fossil fuel industry .

    While this writeup on how to fix the apparently minor (from your perspective) problems of fracking is consistent with cheerleading deregulation and using carbon tax revenues to bolster the bottom-lines of oil companies, I continue to be amazed at your incapacity for objectivity — to fathom and account for the phenomenal level of harm directly attributable to fracking damages imposed on the public across the US. The issue is best revealed in city councils and state legislatures frantically attempting to pass anti-fracking ordinances and laws. ALEC and others have taken full advantage in this scenario with unlimited, anonymous, campaign contributions provided by the Supreme Court sell-out of democracy aka, Citizens United v. FEC.

    Speaking of deregulation, there is a very good (however dark) reason why fracking has been successfully excluded from Clean Water Act protections. That, coupled with the enormous quantities of water required to frack in a time of severe water shortages alone, should be a major part of this “education.”

    The CWA exclusion would not have been necessary if it is benign as this post suggests. Once again the mechanism of causation is deregulation. The long shadow of regulatory capture is upon us and the profiteering agents of undue influence on the democratic process — the multinational behemoths you ignore in this writeup — will remain as the boot it is, on the neck of a hapless US citizenry and struggling planet.

    • So David, you are saying that you know more about this than the folks studying it or working in the field? And that no one has the true story because ?? NSF is in bed with the oil companies?

      I am not a fan of “multinational behemoths”; still I do use natural gas. People here in Colorado are working out the regulation of gas production. As I said in the other post, I do not think that Hick has “sold out.” I think he understands the business. I like the idea, as I’ve also said before, of a well-regulated industry here in Colorado. See when you phrase it that way, it’s all about disagreeing about what’s “well-regulated”. It seem like people who disagree about that should be able to talk to each other.

      Are you saying it’s pointless for people to talk to each other about appropriate regulation?

      • I’m sorry Sharon.
        I mistook your intent here for posting as an opportunity for the public to comment on an issue of increasingly grave consequences on public lands as it relates to an irrational, profit at all costs local, state, and national energy policy. http://www.environmentamerica.org/sites/environment/files/reports/EA_FrackingNumbers_scrn.pdf

        Asking a question like, “are you saying you know more about this than the folks studying it?” , sounds strikingly similar to the culture of condescension used by your former employer in the NEPA process and the media regarding what happens on public lands. Even in retirement, you apparently have no idea how insulting this rhetorical tactic and “professional” attitude is.

        You stated, ” I do not think that Hick has “sold out.” I think he understands the business. I like the idea, as I’ve also said before, of a well-regulated industry here in Colorado.”

        Besides Hick using the media stunt of drinking Halliburton’s fracking fluids to show the public just how benign they are, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/02/13/gov-john-hickenlooper-drank-fracking-fluid-hydraulic-fracturing_n_2674453.html

        Then here’s another taste on the subject –http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/04/fracking-us-toxic-waste-water-washington

        And here’s a news excerpt of what you are regarding as how the state of CO thinks what “well-regulated” means. (it means preventing municipalities from determining the fates of their own community environment)


        (from CBS local news

        “Fracking has become more volatile than the chemicals used in the process. And the bad news for Governor Hickenlooper is that it’s likely to get much worse before it gets better. The problem for the Governor is that the key to the compromise he helped to craft is local communities actually adhering to the law.
        The law is that the state can currently craft the only regulations for fracking, removing cities and communities from the process. If any city decides to break this law, they can be sued by oil companies and the state itself to comply. Usually, that is enough motivation to keep cities in line.

        But, that’s not the case on this issue.

        And it’s not just one city, or just one political group of people. Liberals in Boulder and Conservatives in El Paso County are both looking to buck the system and go ahead and risk legal action in order to fight fracking in their own communities.”


        My question for you is, are you saying I should ignore the revolving door of lobbyists and elected representatives, the revolving door of agency/industry “experts,” the devolution of democracy through campaign finance graft and consolidation of corporate control of the media — and all the converging environmental and socio-economic crises created by their machinations? Unfortunately, that matters a great deal in this discussion.

        What I am saying is there’s quite a bit more to solving society’s problems than acquiescing to demands of trained scientists such as yourself implying all we have to do is “trust the experts” on these issues.

        The above references demonstrate the sort of “compromise” you defend is a definite sell-out of the public best interest and that view is shared across the political spectrum.

      • “Are you saying it’s pointless for people to talk to each other about appropriate regulation?”
        Of course not. I’m saying there’s a LOT MORE to talk about than tweaking the engineering of fracking, or claiming you’re satisfied Hick’s doing a fine job at regulation.

        (for instance: http://endo.endojournals.org/content/early/2013/12/16/en.2013-1697.abstract)

        Estrogen and Androgen Receptor Activities of Hydraulic Fracturing Chemicals and Surface and Ground Water in a Drilling-Dense Region
        Christopher D. Kassotis1, Donald E. Tillitt2, J. Wade Davis3, Annette M. Hormann1 and Susan C. Nagel1
        – Author Affiliations

        1Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health and Division of Biological Sciences University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211;
        2U.S. Geological Survey, Columbia Environmental Research Center, 4200 New Haven Rd, Columbia, MO 65201;
        3Department of Health Management and Informatics, Department of Statistics, University of Missouri, Columbia, MO 65211
        Address all correspondence and requests for reprints to: Susan C. Nagel, PhD, University of Missouri, Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health, M659 Medical Sciences Building, 1 Hospital Drive, University of Missouri-Columbia, Columbia, MO 65211, Phone: 573–884-3028, Fax: 573–882-9010, Email: nagels@health.missouri.edu


        The rapid rise in natural gas extraction utilizing hydraulic fracturing increases the potential for contamination of surface and ground water from chemicals used throughout the process. Hundreds of products containing more than 750 chemicals and components are potentially used throughout the extraction process, including over one hundred known or suspected endocrine disrupting chemicals. We hypothesized that a selected subset of chemicals used in natural gas drilling operations and also surface and ground water samples collected in a drilling-dense region of Garfield County, CO would exhibit estrogen and androgen receptor activities. Water samples were collected, solid-phase extracted, and measured for estrogen and androgen receptor activities using reporter gene assays in human cell lines. Of the 39 unique water samples, 89%, 41%, 12%, and 46% exhibited estrogenic, anti-estrogenic, androgenic, and anti-androgenic activities, respectively. Testing of a subset of natural gas drilling chemicals revealed novel anti-estrogenic, novel anti-androgenic, and limited estrogenic activities. The Colorado River, the drainage basin for this region, exhibited moderate levels of estrogenic, anti-estrogenic, and anti-androgenic activities, suggesting that higher localized activity at sites with known natural gas related spills surrounding the river might be contributing to the multiple receptor activities observed in this water source. The majority of water samples collected from sites in a drilling-dense region of Colorado exhibited more estrogenic, anti-estrogenic, or anti-androgenic activities than reference sites with limited nearby drilling operations. Our data suggest that natural gas drilling operations may result in elevated EDC activity in surface and ground water.

        • David:

          Are the water samples that were collected related to drinking water?

          Okay, so the water samples that were collected “might be contributing” to something called “multiple receptor activities.” What does that mean?

          Is the Colorado River a source of comparative measures, or a regular source of diffusion from its sources, such as the points where these alarming percentages were made?

          At what levels are the “known or suspected endocrine disrupting chemicals” (whatever the heck that means) considered (or suspected to be) dangerous?

          This comes across as a really wordy and potentially threatening case of something or other, as detailed by people steeped in jargon. What does it mean?

          In other words, is this something to really be concerned about, or just some people using professional jabberwocky to justify their funding and hoping for more from the same (or similar) source?

          Seriously, what is this link really telling us, other than the writers having a problem spitting out what it is we should be concerned about, if anything? I can’t tell what it is they are trying to say, and I did do a careful reading of the text.

          • Doctor Zybach,
            I bet you have the journal subscriptions and means to easily access the paper and the scientists themselves, so its pretty clear where you are going with this line of questioning. (hint: I’m not your guy to answer these insightful questions of yours.)

            I congratulate your academic objectivity and skepticism (whether over AGW or the toxicity of DDT, Roundup, etc.) Still, it’s hard for me to not also consider there are demonstrated risks to disposing millions of gallons of … (??? — it’s proprietary information!) being injected underground at extremely high pressures but which are exempt from the Clean Water Act provisions. This creates a disturbing public predicament.

            However, just because the Precautionary Principle has been abandoned by the corporate state and CWA expunged from fracking regulations, doesn’t mean the very credible threats and risks posed by fracking methods don’t exist. There are whole town councils (liberal and conservative) who can read the news events surrounding the devaluation of their tax base and threats to the public health of their citizenry without requiring a scientific examination of the obvious health threats. They have attempted to protect themselves from these threats, have been legislatively thwarted by the corporate state, and apparently intend to willfully break the law anyway.

            So, you complain about “professional jabberwocky to justify their funding,” while questioning the conclusions of the scientists, asking “What does it mean?”

            Suffice to say I’ll continue to invoke skepticism around Sharon’s pollyanna pandering to a Governor who claims he drinks Halliburton’s fracking fluids, and the predicament of regulatory capture in the service of speaking to its clear consequences to human life and property.

            And you can continue to invoke your “What does it mean?” skepticism in the (apparent) service of protecting petrochemical profiteering off of clear and present dangers — at the obvious cost of democracy, human health and safety, our air and groundwater resources, our ecosystem integrity, and unabated, runaway climate change.

            Happy Holidays!

            • Mr. Beebe,

              Thanks for your reasoned reply and responses. Yes, I probably have the ability and resources to read this paper in its entire length and/or contact the people who generated it, but I don’t have the time or interest. My questions have a somewhat scientific basis that might be answered in the text, but they are mostly rhetorical. I’m mostly interested in who paid for this, how much, and why — but not really interested enough to pursue the answers.

              The one point you make that does interest me is the “abandonment” of the Precautionary Principle. I was never aware that any of the organizations you mention had ever adopted it in the first place, so I think it would be more accurate to say “not accepted by”, rather than “abandoned.” If you interpret this as somehow being in the “(apparent) service of protecting petrochemical profiteering off of clear and present dangers”, that is up to you. If it is true, however, I wish someone would send me a check or at least a thank you note for my services.

              And Season’s Greetings to you, too, David!

  2. This is interesting, but by the end of the Denver Post article I’m still a little unclear about what Prof. Limerick is trying to say… Of her 3 ideas, the first seems entirely focused on calling for more science and engineering (I like David’s “technological fundamentalism”), but then her third idea pretty much cancels that out by arguing against our overly optimistic expectations of science. The twice-repeated risk formula (risk = hazard + outrage) is cute but makes little sense. She doesn’t define “outrage” (does it include reasonable concerns?); if there’s no outrage then I suppose “risk = hazard”, a truism which is hardly informative. Her second idea (group hug) is nice enough, reminiscent of Rodney King (why can’t we all just get along) or the Beatles (we can work it out) or any number of others. The third idea confuses me, first she criticizes experts/scientists for giving us “confident and certain predictions” instead of “probabilities of risk”. Then in the very next sentence characterizes the scientific mindset as “calculating and estimating the probability of an undesirable thing happening”… well, seems to me that’s exactly what “probability of risk” is (so I’m confused what she’s asking for). With “the public” condescendingly characterized as possessing only an “am I in danger?” mentality, it’s hard to imagine how the necessary conversation will evolve (I don’t know why, but for me that brings up a mental image of what happens when I’m out on my horse and a harmless piece of plastic flutters by in the wind- Horse: “am I in danger?” Guy: “nope, no danger, don’t worry your little head about it, but I’ll just shorten up on the reins a little, just in case”) Prof. Limerick is all about the American West, so hopefully she would get the analogy.

    • It’s interesting that you say her attitude toward “the public” is condescending, but the idea that people who disagree ought to be able to talk without shouting is “(group hug) is nice enough, reminiscent of Rodney King (why can’t we all just get along) or the Beatles (we can work it out) or any number of others. ” Which seems kind of condescending to me..

      Granted that you are not around here and probably not exposed to the kind of rhetoric and passion that we see. Nevertheless, the idea that “my point of view is too important for me to be civil or respectful of others” is frequently found. I think Professor Limerick is just saying that she and her students don’t think the degree of nastiness is helpful to solving problems.

      I am not, nor is she, idealistic enough to think that we can all sit around and hold hands and sing Kumbaya (since you are bringing up songs). But I believe (can’t speak for her) in the idea that we should be civil and bring up our points (as we try to on this blog) and it will lead to more clarity as to why we disagree and how we might arrive at an agreement to go forward. If that makes me a Pollyanna, well so be it.

      Which reminds me of the last year before I retired, there was an award given to a group who worked with BFF (Best Ferret Forever) in the Conata Basin. The representative that was there said that she believed that they were all good people with different interests and points of view.

      And as to the science stuff, I think she is saying “it is good to know things about the science, but risk is ultimately a question of values.” I think it’s particularly important that their grant asks them to look at this issue from a broader perspective; otherwise it would be like our world, conflicting studies based on different framings of the issue that don’t actually address the policy issue directly.

      • Which seems kind of condescending to me.. I guess the difference to me is that Limerick seems to characterize “the public” as motivated only/mostly by feelings of danger (apparently not rationally derived, i.e. the mental product of people who are incapable of, or resistant to, rational analysis), which is why I used the word condescending. My feeling about Limerick’s article is that her first and third “ideas” are confused and contradictory, and her second idea is trivial (not wrong, just a platitude). I would expect a higher standard in published thoughts from a university professor, faculty director and chair of the board of an academic center, and who is apparently self-described as someone who “has dedicated her career to bridging the gap between academics and the general public”. So my comments were maybe a little snarky (good word, I borrowed it) but I think she needs to set the bar a little higher.

        I agree wholeheartedly with Dave’s comment (below) that scientists have a moral and ethical duty to never abuse the lay public. I don’t quite get the idea that “fracking is a bit harder-edged science than ecology or any of the other ologies.” If the colloquial term “hard science” is being invoked, it’s generally acknowledged to include the so-called natural sciences, of which ecology certainly is one. Fracking as Dave described it (e.g., whether a well blows out) isn’t actually science at all, it’s engineering and technology. Engineering generally isn’t considered to be a science, but that’s a peripheral discussion, here’s a good reference written by an engineering professor, published on the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) website, titled “Engineering is not Science”:

        • That was a pretty good semantic catch, Guy. Yep, engineering is not science, it’s APPLICATION of science to “stuff.” Geology is a science, and the civil engineer APPLIES it to his slope calculations.
          When I say hard versus soft, I’m thinking in stereo: One channel is application, the other channel is causality — x and y make z. I would say that physics is considerably “harder” than ecology, or say “conservation biology.”
          So, let’s call fracking an application of rather hard science, doing it wrong is pretty easy to distinguish from doing it right. Ecosystem management, on the other hand, is the supposed application of a pile of fuzzy wuzzy sciences where there’s way too much bickering over what is “right.”

  3. I think what Limerick is doing here is trying to address a real problem when it comes to issues such as hydrofracking. Let’s admit here that fracking is a revolution, making trillions upon trillions cf of petroluem newly accessible — meaning the social downsizing point which the enviros lust for (don’t deny it) has been moved back a few years, perhaps decades. So, no WONDER the enviro pros would oppose fracking as a matter of reflex.
    Second, fracking is a bit harder-edged science than “ecology” or any of the other ologies. The well either blows out or it does not. So far, the wells are NOT blowing, because guess what, the cost of a blown well would void the capitalist gains from a hundred good wells. Guess what, the technology is well-developed, effective, and well-matured.
    Finally, I want to reiterate the point that scientists, hard or soft, have a moral and ethical duty to never abuse the lay public. The temptation can often be there, and if that trust is ever violated and lay people figure it out, not only is the reputation of the scientist damaged, but of the field, and science in general.
    So what I thing is going on here is, Patty is trying to warn her friends that hype is not going to carry the day, especially if the facts turn out otherwise. And if the frack-haters are proven objectively wrong, then their reputations suffer in the POLITICAL and POLICY arena that is so critical to the “relevance” of the environmental movement. Movement — as in political.

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