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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Fracking Outpaces Science on Its Impact

environment Yale

Fracking Outpaces Science on Its Impact

© Balazs Justin
Just a decade ago, only the smallest sliver of the U.S. population had even heard of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Today, it’s one of the most incendiary environmental topics going. In recent years, wells built for this form of natural gas extraction have spread by the thousands through various parts of the country, an expansion many argue outpaces the science done to understand its potential impacts. Whether fracking can continue spreading without major harm to the environment or public health, and whether it promises to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, are questions researchers are still working to answer.
Fracking is a process for extracting natural gas from shale layers typically thousands of feet deep. These targeted shales aren’t especially permeable, meaning most of the gas is trapped. So drillers blast the rock layers with highly pressurized water containing chemicals that reduce friction between water and rock. The chemicals make up only a small fraction of the fluid. A few, such as ethylene glycol, are toxic, and some constituents of fluid mixes are protected as trade secrets. Sand in the mix helps to prop open the cracks that will release the natural gas.

Fracking has dramatically increased the amount of natural gas accessible to drillers in the United States. Indeed, after natural gas imports peaked in 2007, the country has seen a boom in domestic production and in construction of natural gas power plants. The U.S. Energy Information Administration forecasts that by 2035 electricity production using natural gas will roughly double to meet about half the country’s electricity needs.

Key natural gas sources, like the Marcellus-Utica shale beds beneath parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, are typically situated beneath rural regions. Some people living in such areas and benefiting from jobs or sales of drilling rights welcome the expansion. But many other residents have grown increasingly fearful that natural gas extraction using fracking might unintentionally foul their water supplies and other environmental resources.

As fracking and associated issues have gained increasing attention, interest in the topic has spread far beyond those living in the shale regions. “People have widely varying opinions,” says James Saiers, professor of hydrology at F&ES. “But my experience suggests that these opinions are often not very informed.” He and others at Yale are taking part in a panel discussion on September 18 on a topic that is literally reshaping many parts of the country.
In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.
— EPA administrator Lisa Jackson
Perhaps the greatest fear tied to fracking is that the process and associated activities will contaminate drinking water sources. The Independent Petroleum Association of America, a natural-gas industry representative, maintained in a recent press release that there have been “… no proven cases of hydraulic fracturing impacting groundwater.” EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has similarly, though more equivocally, said, “In no case have we made a definitive determination that the fracking process has caused chemicals to enter groundwater.” But there are several routes by which fracking could at least potentially cause problems.

Despite the high pressures involved with fracking, researchers such as Saiers say it’s unlikely that the fracking itself, which might occur a mile or more below the surface, could actually blast a path to drinking water sources, which are typically just a few hundred feet down. “That’s a reasonable assumption,” says Saiers, based on definitive microseismic studies conducted during fracking operations. “A lot of qualified hydrologists would believe that.”

Supporting Research and Affected Communities

Philip JohnsonWhen Phil Johnson first left Yale to become a senior officer with The Heinz Endowments’ environment program, hydraulic fracturing was the last thing he thought he’d be working on. Though he grew up in Cooperstown, N.Y., situated above part of the Marcellus-Utica Shale, he, like most people at that time in 2009, barely knew what fracking was.

But the topic was beginning to raise concerns in Pennsylvania, where the organization focuses its work. So Heinz asked Johnson, who has both public health and environmental science master’s degrees from Yale and will receive his FES Ph.D. shortly, to explore how the organization could best support fracking research and community activities. “New extraction activity was emerging before our eyes,” says Johnson. “We wanted to get up to speed quickly to determine what, if any, kind of grant-making we could do to address it.”

As Johnson and program director Caren Glotfelty dug into the topic, one of the first priorities they identified was establishing baseline health and environmental data to better discern potential problems. The realization of this need came, in part, after studying the experiences of people in areas such as Wyoming, where such baseline information was severely lacking. This was, for instance, making it very difficult for families and communities to tie air- and water-quality issues to fracking and related activities they felt were to blame.

“If you don’t have baseline knowledge, it’s hard to do decision-making,” says Johnson. “It’s hard to understand what the future scenarios might be and respond to them.”

With Heinz support, research groups around Pennsylvania have been able to develop monitoring techniques and datasets. Johnson points out that such work is just a start, as comprehensive monitoring would ultimately require support from a number of other sources—support that researchers are now better equipped to seek.

Heinz has made a concerted effort to support community groups gathering health and other information in the region and training others to do so. They have also supported the establishment of key information sources for residents, such as the website fracktracker.org. “The idea is that the more groups there are engaging in a coordinated fashion across a large geography, the more we’ll be able to collectively understand whether or not there are impacts—positive or negative—and at what scale.”
A related hypothesis is that cracks resulting from fracking make connections with existing cracks, allowing fluids and gases to migrate higher up than expected. Some modeling suggests it’s possible. Seismic tests can reveal where cracks run, but typically not to a degree that can determine whether there are continuous paths. Saiers says that systematic tests haven’t been done to fully prove this issue, leading to assumptions on both sides of the debate.

But there are other points of concern. If wells aren’t properly installed, specifically if there are problems with the concrete used to seal the space between the main well pipe and the surrounding earth, then fracking fluid or methane could find its way toward the surface via the improperly sealed space. Over time well pipes themselves can also corrode and leak, creating other pathways.

A related issue is that in some fracking regions, oil and natural gas drilling has been going on for decades or even a century, leaving a legacy of over 150,000 abandoned wells scattered about Pennsylvania alone. The old pipes or deteriorated concrete casings could be conduits between the upper and lower reaches. Initial investigation of a recent geyser of methane and water near fracking operations in Union Township, Penn., suggested that a 70-year-old abandoned and unmapped well might have been the methane pathway that caused the problem.

And, of course, while most attention focuses on the fracking itself, that process is only one component of an overall drilling operation. Various stages of fracking that have to do with handling fluids, for instance, offer at least the potential for spills or leaks that could affect water sources.

There have been some high-profile cases in Pavilion, Wyo., and Dimock, Penn, where government or other analyses have found elevated levels of volatile organic compounds, such as benzene and methane, in wells close to natural gas operations but without making definitive connections. And the documentary Gasland drew attention to cases of families plagued by well-water contamination issues they believe came about only after drilling began in their areas.

Natural gas companies have settled some legal claims with such homeowners, but without admission of guilt. Some researchers have raised questions about the accuracy of some of the material in Gasland, but Saiers says one thing about the film not in question is how it depicts the angst of families struggling with major water problems. “When it shows how people feel about it, that’s legitimate,” says Saiers. “And it’s important.”

In most cases, fracking operations are in less affluent rural areas where citizens often rely on private wells and have fewer resources to address water supply problems or to fight against companies they feel may be responsible. But Saiers says socioeconomic disparities don’t seem to be a key driver in where drilling spreads. The richest shale just tends to be in rural areas, and urban areas with far fewer open spaces are harder to tap anyway. “My impression is that these companies follow the gas,” he says.

Probing Insurance Industry’s Concern Over Fracking

Matthew JokajtysAfter completing a joint law and environmental management degree at F&ES and Pace in 2011, Matthew Jokajtys went to work for a global insurance company and was struck by a growing concern within the industry about fracking. As an extracurricular project, he dug into the topic, and the results of his inquiry will be published in an upcoming issue of the American Bar Association’s journal, Natural Resources and Environment Magazine.

In July Nationwide, one of the world’s largest insurance companies, announced it wouldn’t cover any personal or commercial claims for damages, such as drinking water contamination, potentially tied to fracking. Their argument is that this is not a new policy but simply a clarification of existing policy. And though Nationwide’s position has yet to be challenged in court, it’s a good indicator of fear and uncertainty in the industry.

“Based on what I’ve seen, it seems like the controversy surrounding insurance policies doesn’t necessarily stem directly from the act of fracking,” says Jokajtys, who now works at a boutique environmental law firm in Manhattan. “It stems partially from the controversy surrounding it.” In particular, the fierce stances some citizens are taking on fracking have insurance companies wary of what’s to come.

But with so much fracking activity, it’s clear that businesses will need the insurance issues settled, perhaps through companies offering new insurance products that directly cover fracking hazards claims.

Alternatively, some fear fracking could become uninsurable. Jokajtys says that would mean costs for related injuries, property damage or environmental declines would fall to individual companies, taxpayers or even the victims of any problems that might arise. Another option, he says, would be for states to set up funds to cover damages as they have for problems with leaking underground storage tanks.

“Insurance is all about pricing risk, and if the insurance industry doesn’t have enough information to accurately price that risk,” says Jokajtys, “they’re not going to want to develop and sell the products.”
There are, however, rich shales in the watershed that supplies New York City. That rural watershed remains untapped because the state of New York has a temporary moratorium on fracking as debate continues over the best permanent policy.

Flammable taps resulting from excessive methane are a dramatic display of problems potentially tied to fracking. Methane can make its way into drinking water through a variety of paths apart from fracking, such as from abandoned wells, because it exists throughout various subsurface layers. Saiers says peer-reviewed studies have found methane in drinking water aquifers prior to shale gas development.

A Duke University study of water wells in New York and Pennsylvania released last year in theProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that methane levels were significantly higher in wells closer to fracking operations. As important, the researchers found that, at least in some cases, this methane had a chemical signature closer to that of methane from the deep shale than from shallower subsurface layers.

“Not surprisingly the industry wasn’t overjoyed with our conclusions about methane,” says lead author Robert Jackson, an environmental scientist at Duke. But some environmentalists were upset too, he says, because the study also concluded there were no signs of fracking fluids in the wells, and some detractors felt they hadn’t done enough to test for this possibility. Then there were the people that called him up in tears because they were so thankful that someone was even looking closely at the issue.

Some also criticized Jackson’s team for not comparing their methane measurements against baseline measurements taken before fracking began, but that’s because the data simply don’t exist. For a variety of reasons, baseline water-quality measurements and studies have been sparse, though newer regulations in Pennsylvania do require water quality testing prior to new drilling.

Jackson believes the simplest explanation for his group’s findings is that the methane is coming up through or around abandoned oil or natural gas wells or new wells that were inadequately cased. He says that some of the water wells his group has tested were so saturated with methane that the water bubbled like champagne. So while it’s true that methane can contaminate wells without any help from fracking, he says even without baseline data, if a person begins seeing such an obvious sign of contamination as bubbling after fracking begins, it can be a reliable indicator or a connection. Too much methane in water can cause an explosion, but Jackson says it’s not clear what, if any, health threats that low concentrations of methane pose.

Technological advances have enabled companies to drill horizontally and reach shale miles away from the well head. This reduces the surface footprint of operations, but the thousands upon thousands of these rigs still arrive with consequences.

In Pennsylvania, access roads for fracked wells must often be cut through some of the region’s most pristine remaining forests. Roadways also typically have to cross streams and, depending on how they are constructed, can block water flow needed by plants and animals downstream. But a more widespread concern is the ecological effects of companies tapping waterways to get the millions of gallons needed for fracking wells.

Studying Fracking’s Demand on Water

Tara MobergOne key environmental concern associated with fracking is how much water the process consumes. Fracking a single well can take millions of gallons—a third of that amount makes its way back up the well as “flowback,” and has to be collected and processed or recycled.

Since completing her master’s in environmental science at F&ES in 2008, Tara Moberg has spent much of her time thinking about the ecological implications of removing billions of gallons of water from waterways in the Marcellus-Utica shale region, whether for fracking or other industrial uses.

As a freshwater scientist with The Nature Conservancy, she’s helping to complete a study commissioned by Pennsylvania state agencies analyzing the minimum flow needs for waterways in the region, with the goal of informing policy decisions on water removal.

The long-term study first focused on the massive Susquehanna, whose basin runs from New York through Pennsylvania to Maryland and includes everything from small tributaries to the deep, wide waters of the main river farther south.

Moberg and her colleagues begin a basin study by first examining the different types of ecosystems found there. They identify the species found in each, and the processes, such as stream velocity, that affect them. Then they set up workshops with regional experts and review available data on key species to figure out how their water needs change throughout the year.

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission used The Nature Conservancy’s Susquehanna report as the basis for a new draft policy on water withdrawals and minimum waterway levels. Thousands of comments on the policy, particularly from industry, have poured in, and the final policy hasn’t yet been announced.
One potential positive for natural gas is that it burns relatively cleanly. In simplest terms, burning natural gas produces substantially lower greenhouse gas emissions than coal or oil. Based on this, some have pointed to a potential role for expanded natural gas use—made possible thanks to fracking—as a transition to renewable energy. Natural gas also burns much cleaner than coal without releasing pollutants such as mercury and sulfur dioxide.

But reality rarely plays out in simplest terms. At each step along the natural-gas production line—from drilling, to transport, to use—there are opportunities for leakage. A key phase comes when drilling and fracking operations are completed and operators must connect the new well to a production pipeline. Methane coming from the new well can be lost during this switchover and either burned off or flared, converting it to carbon dioxide, or vented straight to the atmosphere.

Because methane, which is the main constituent of natural gas, is a much more efficient heat trapper than carbon dioxide, venting and flaring it can eliminate some of the benefits of lower greenhouse gas emissions provided by natural gas. These losses, along with other leakage, could be pumping a substantial amount of methane into the atmosphere, but just how much isn’t clear.

“The bottom line is, there have to be more measurements in many more places to really constrain these leakage rates,” says Saiers. And transporting huge amounts of water used in fracking, and the resulting waste, can also lead to significant greenhouse gas emissions and pollution.

Regardless, at least some of the losses might be controlled. Earlier this year the EPA put in place new regulations to improve poor air quality associated with drilling. Companies will now be required to use equipment that prevents the leakage of methane and other gases during drilling—techniques known as “green completions”—though flaring methane into the atmosphere will still be legal during a transition phase that ends in 2015.
Without a policy—and the United States isn’t good with energy policy—there’s a real possibility that natural gas would delay development of renewables.
— James Saiers, F&ES hydrology professor
There’s also a less obvious concern about natural gas’ potential role in climate change. The issue is price. For now, sustainable power sources, such as wind and solar, remain much more expensive per unit of energy than fossil fuels. As oil prices have risen in recent years, oil has become nearly as expensive as renewables, making pursuit of sustainable options more economically feasible.

But the United States’ massive shale natural gas reserves and frenzied expansion of drilling have pushed natural gas prices down. It’s now so cheap that many power companies have shifted toward greatly expanded natural gas use. With such a cheap, domestic energy source dominating the U.S. energy landscape, it could dramatically slow any movement toward more expensive renewables.

Besides green completions rules, there have been other recent regulatory changes to address some fracking concerns. Pennsylvania beefed up rules for concrete casings for wells and now requires baseline water sampling around new drilling sites, for instance.

But many still wonder how safely fracking can be done on a larger scale. Researchers say that too many open questions remain. “As big as the issue is, there is not a tremendous amount of new science on the environmental impacts of fracking,” says Saiers.
The question isn’t ‘can hydraulic fracturing be done safely?’ It’s ‘will it be done safely?’
— Robert Jackson, Duke University environmental scientist
Duke’s Jackson says that even with the uncertainties, the current debate is far more divisive than it needs to be. “The hydraulic fracturing debate is like our political debate—it’s just unnecessarily polarized. There are many people out there, I believe, who just want there to be a problem,” he says. “On the other hand, my frustration with industry is their unwillingness to acknowledge any problems whatsoever.” That unwillingness, he suggests, complicates research efforts by preventing the release of some data and makes it look like industry is hiding something.

There have been problems, but Jackson says it’s also important to remember that numerous wells have been drilled and used without causing any known problems. “The question isn’t ‘can hydraulic fracturing be done safely?’ It’s ‘will it be done safely?’.”

U.S. Acid Rain Regulations: Did They Work?


U.S. Acid Rain Regulations: Did They Work?

by Bill Chameides | May 10th, 2012 
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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U.S. acid rain regulations have worked. What’s more, they didn’t seem to get in the way of the country’s longest economic expansion.
Environmental regulations are none too popular these days. According to some, they’re plain ineffective; for others, they’re job killers; and for still others they’re downright un-American , subversive even. The answer for these anti-regulation hawks: roll back regulations, and rein in or even do away with the Environmental Protection Agency.
That stuff may play well to a polarized electorate, but it’s not a sound idea. Why? A healthy, vibrant people and environment are what makes living in the United States so great, and we can thank EPA and, more broadly, environmental regulations for a good deal of that vibrancy.

Case in Point: The U.S. Acid Rain Program

Acid rain, according to data I came across last week from the University of Delaware, dropped remarkably in Lewes, Delaware, between 1990 and 2010, a decline attributed to emission cuts enforced through the acid rain program. How did that happen? Funny you should ask.
The program to address the growing acidity in rain falling in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s was established in the Clean Air Act amendments signed into law by President George H. W. Bush in 1990. The relevant section, Title IV, required large cuts in the emissions of sulfur oxides and nitrogen oxides from power plants “to reduce the adverse effects of acid deposition.” These emissions cuts would have the added benefit of reducing fine particle pollution and ozone, which can lead to aggravated heart and lung problems, including asthma, irregular heartbeats, and nonfatal heart attacks. The cuts would also reduce haze, which limits visibility in places where visibility is important — our national parks, for example.
Quite controversial at the time, Title IV prescribed a cap-and-trade mechanism for reaching a nationwide target for sulfur dioxide emissions — controversial for acid rain then, controversial for climate change now. Another source of controversy was the program’s supposed costs: industry projected them to go as high as $1,000-$1,500 per ton of sulfur dioxide reduced, while forecasting a hike from all the Clean Air Act amendments on many states’ electricity prices of up to 10 percent [pdf]. Other early projections, from sources ranging from industry to government, estimated that the annual cost of compliance for the sulfur dioxide portion of the program would be between $2.4 billion and $5 billion [pdf] for 1995-1999.
Bottom line, said many, especially those in industry: too expensive.

So What Happened With Our Acid Rain Problems?

Fortunately we are in a position to answer that question, at least in part, because the government had the foresight to establish the National Acid Deposition Program (NADP), which among other things maintains a national network of sites monitoring air quality and the composition of precipitation throughout the country.
In the case of the acidity of rain, the results are striking. Over a period of 16 years, from 1994 to 2010, we have seen a decrease in the concentration of acid-forming compounds in rain falling on the Northeast, where ecological impacts of acid rain were most severe, and in the Southeast. Other NADP data indicate that lakes and streams in some affected areas have begun to recover. That sounds like success, but there is a caveat. The emission reductions accomplished thus far do not look to be sufficient to have restored some of our waterways to complete health. For example, while “sulfate deposited by rain in New England” has declined by about 40 percent, according to NADP data, EPA says“more time and more emissions reductions are needed before the lakes and rivers in New England will fully recover from the effects of acid rain.”
Nevertheless, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the acid rain program with its use of cap and trade was very effective in reducing emissions of acid rain-causing pollutants. Emissions of sulfur dioxide in 2009 were about one third of what they were in 1990.

These maps demonstrate the change in acid precipitation from 1994 to 2010. Hydrogen ion is a measure of the acidity of precipitation, and wet deposition means that the acidity is incorporated into precipitation considered “wet,’ such as rain, snow, fog and mist. (Source: National Atmospheric Deposition Program)

OK, but What About the Economics?

Was the acid rain program an economic downer for the United States? Consider three measures.
  1. Costs – Projected vs. Actual: Remember those early cost estimates of up to $5 billion annually to run the sulfur dioxide program between 1995 and 1999?The U.S. Energy Information Administration, the agency tasked with providing Congress with objective, nonpartisan data and analyses related to energy, has calculated that the annual costs were only $836 million. The actual cost range per ton of sulfur dioxide [pdf]during this period was between $100 and $200. EPA’s initial 1990 estimate, which had projected that annual costs for the sulfur dioxide program from 2000 on would rise to about $6 billion annually [pdf], was also off: the actual annual costs for the whole program since 2000 have been about half that [pdf].
    And the health benefits from Title IV to us Americans in the form of improved air quality are estimated to be in the range of hundreds of billions of dollars annually [pdf]. Not bad.
  2. Electricity bills: Did the regulations foisted upon the power industry lead to a huge jump in our electricity prices? You won’t find any evidence for that from the EIA.As illustrated below, U.S. electricity prices at first rose modestly before falling through the 1990s as the program was implemented. Prices have risen in the 2000s. The group’s latest reportprojects modestly falling prices in 2013 due to the low cost of natural gas.

    Chart calculated from these EIA data [pdf] and the data [xls] found in Figure 24 of this EIA report from May 2012.
  3. Economic expansion. And finally it is perhaps relevant to note that the acid rain program took off in the 1990s at the same time the nation’s longest economic expansion, with its almost 21 million jobs added to the economy, took off.
The environment and the economy. At least in the case of the acid rain program, looks like you can have your cake and eat it to.
filed under: climate changeeconomyenergyfacultyglobal warmingpolicypolitics,pollutionrainfall 
and: ,,,,

Techniques of the Skeptics Opposing Climate and Environmental Science

In a 1984 interview in The New Yorker, Sherry Rowland (chemist at the University of California) concluded, "Nothing will be done about this problem until there is further evidence that a significant loss of ozone has occurred. Unfortunately, this means that if there is a disaster in the making in the stratosphere we are probably not going to avoid it." These prophetic words were proved true the very next year with the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole. Luckily, it appears that serious damage to the planet was averted with the swift implementation of the Montreal Protocol. Unfortunately, it appears that we have not learned our lesson from the past 30 years' experience with the ozone-CFC debate. Once again, we find a theory that has wide support in the scientific community being attacked by a handful of skeptics, publishing outside of the peer-reviewed scientific literature, their voices greatly amplified by the public relations machines of powerful corporations and politicians sympathetic to them. The skeptics have trotted out the same bag of tricks used in the CFC-ozone depletion debate, this time to delay any response to the threat of global warming. And once again, it will likely take a disaster to change things--unless we wise up to their tricks.

Weather Underground

The Skeptics vs. the Ozone Hole

By Jeffrey Masters, Ph.D. — Director of Meteorology, Weather Underground, Inc.


On June 28, 1974, Sherry Rowland and Mario Molina, chemists at the University of California, Irvine, published the first scientific paper warning that human-generated chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) could cause serious harm to Earth's protective ozone layer (Molina and Rowland, 1974). They calculated that if CFC production continued to increase at the going rate of 10%/year until 1990, then remain steady, CFCs would cause a global 5 to 7 percent ozone loss by 1995 and 30-50% loss by 2050.

They warned that the loss of ozone would significantly increase the amount of skin-damaging ultraviolet UV-B light reaching the surface, greatly increasing skin cancer and cataracts. The loss of stratospheric ozone could also significantly cool the stratosphere, potentially causing destructive climate change. Although no stratospheric ozone loss had been observed yet, CFCs should be banned, they said. At the time, the CFC industry was worth about $8 billion in the U.S., employed over 600,000 people directly, and 1.4 million people indirectly (Roan, 1989).

Critics and skeptics--primarily industry spokespeople and scientists from conservative think tanks--immediately attacked the theory. Despite the fact that Molina and Rowland's theory had wide support in the scientific community, a handful of skeptics, their voices greatly amplified by the public relations machines of powerful corporations and politicians sympathetic to them, succeeded in delaying imposition of controls on CFCs for many years. However, the stunning discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole in 1985 proved the skeptics wrong. Human-generated CFCs were indeed destroying Earth's protective ozone layer. In fact, the ozone depletion was far worse than Molina and Roland had predicted. No one had imagined that ozone depletions like the 50% losses being observed by 1987 over Antarctica were possible so soon. Despite the continued opposition of many of the skeptics, the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to phase out ozone-destroying chemicals, was hurriedly approved in 1987 to address the threat.

Ozone depletion worsened globally throughout the 1990's, with peak ozone losses reaching 70% in Antarctica in Spring, 30% in the Arctic in Spring, 8% in Australia in summer, 10-15% in New Zealand in summer, and 3% globally year-round (WMO, 2002; Manin et. al., 2001; McKenzie et. al., 1999). In response, the international community adopted four amendments to the Montreal Protocol in the 1990's to promote an ever faster phase out of ozone-destroying chemicals. Finally, in the early 2000's, although the we cannot yet say that stratospheric ozone depletion has reached its maximum, atmospheric levels of ozone-destroying substances in the atmosphere are now declining, and a disappearance of the Antarctic ozone hole is expected by about 2050 (WMO, 2002). Molina and Rowland were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1995. The citation from the Nobel committee credited them with helping to deliver the Earth from a potential environmental disaster.

On this 30th anniversary of the beginning of the ozone depletion debate, it is revealing to review the techniques the skeptics used in the CFC-ozone depletion issue over the past 30 years. All of them have parallels in the current global warming debate.

Techniques of the Skeptics

Launch a public relations campaign disputing the evidence.

DuPont, which made 1/4 of the world's CFCs, spent millions of dollars running full-page newspaper advertisements defending CFCs in 1975, claiming there was no proof that CFCs were harming the ozone layer. Chairman Scorer of DuPont commented that the ozone depletion theory was "a science fiction tale...a load of rubbish...utter nonsense." (Chemical Week, 16 July 1975).

The aerosol industry also launched a PR blitz, issuing a press release stating that the ozone destruction by CFCs was a theory, and not fact. This press release, and many other 'news stories' favorable to industry, were generated by the aerosol industry and printed by the New York TimesWall Street JournalFortune magazine, Business Week, and the London Observer (Blysky and Blysky, 1985). The symbol of Chicken Little claiming that "The sky is falling!" was used with great effect by the PR campaign, and appeared in various newspaper headlines.

Such biased news reporting is hardly unusual in American journalism; several studies have shown that press releases are the basis for 40 - 50% of the content of U.S. newspapers (Lee and Solomon, 1990; Blysky and Blysky, 1985). The material appears to be written by the paper's own journalists, but is hardly changed from the press release.

Predict dire economic consequences, and ignore the cost benefits.

The CEO of Pennwalt, the third largest CFC manufacturer in the U.S., talked of "economic chaos" if CFC use was to be phased out (Cogan, 1988). DuPont, the largest CFC manufacturer, warned that the costs in the U.S. alone could exceed $135 billion, and that "entire industries could fold" (Glas, 1989). The Association of European Chemical Companies warned that CFC regulation might lead to "redesign and re-equipping of large sectors of vital industry..., smaller firms going out of business... and an effect on inflation and unemployment, nationally and internationally" (Stockholm Environment Institute, 1999).

However, the economic reality has been less dire. As the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Economic Options Committee stated in 1994: "Ozone-depleting substance replacement has been more rapid, less expensive, and more innovative than had been anticipated at the beginning of the substitution process. The alternative technologies already adopted have been effective and inexpensive enough that consumers have not yet felt any noticeable impacts (except for an increase in automobile air conditioning service costs)" (UNEP, 1994). A group of over two dozen industry experts estimated the total CFC phase-out cost in industrialized counties at $37 billion to business and industry, and $3 billion to consumers (Vogelsberg, 1997). A study done for Environment Canadapresented to a UN meeting in 1997, estimated a total CFC phase-out cost of $235 billion through the year 2060, but economic benefits totaling $459 billion. These savings came from decreased UV light exposure to aquatic ecosystems, plants, forests, crops, plastics, paints and other outdoor building materials, and did not include the savings due to decreased health care costs. The report concluded that because of the Montreal Protocol, there would be 19.1 million fewer cases of non-melanoma skin cancer, 1.5 million fewer cases of melanoma, 129 million fewer cases of cataracts, and 330,000 fewer skin cancer deaths worldwide.

Find and pay a respected scientist to argue persuasively against the threat.

CFC industry companies hired the world's largest public relations firm, Hill & Knowlton, who organized a month-long U.S. speaking tour in 1975 for noted British scientist Richard Scorer, a former editor of the International Journal of Air Pollution and author of several books on pollution. Scorer blasted Molina and Rowland, calling them "doomsayers", and remarking, "The only thing that has been accumulated so far is a number of theories." Molina's response was, "The gentleman is good at attacking. But he has never published any scientific papers on the subject." (Roan, 1985).

Use non-peer reviewed scientific publications or industry-funded scientists who don't publish original peer-reviewed scientific work to support your point of view.

Articles published in traditional scientific journals undergo a process essential to good science--peer-review. The peer-review process starts when a prospective author submits their work to a journal. The editor of the journal reviews the article, and sends copies to three scientists who are experts in the field. These anonymous reviewers send their comments on errors that need correcting, omissions that need addressing, etc, back to the journal editor, who then asks the author to submit a revised article addressing the concerns of the reviewers. After making revisions, the author submits the article back to the journal editor, who can then accept the article, reject it, or send it back for another round of review. The rigors of peer-review are such that a large percentage of submitted articles never get published in the scientific literature.

In 1995, the year Molina and Rowland were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of the CFC-ozone depletion link, the House Science Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment began a series of hearings to revisit the issue of ozone depletion, where the issue of peer-review was brought up. During the hearings, Representative John Doolittle, a California Republican, stated, "My own belief, is that the question is still very much open to debate...Theories or speculation about this are not sufficient. We need science, not pseudo-science."

Doolittle was challenged by Lynn Rivers, a Michigan Democrat. They had the following interchange, taken from the Congressional Report, "Hearing on Scientific Integrity and the Public Trust: The Science Behind Federal Policies and Mandates: Case Study 1 -- Stratospheric Ozone: Myth and Realities", 104th Congress, 1st session, September 20, 1995, Report no. 31 (Gelbspan, 1998):
RIVERS: "Have you found in peer-reviewed articles or in the broader scientific discourse that people are saying this is not really a problem?"
DOOLITTLE: "I have found that there is no established consensus as what actually is the problem. I found extremely misleading representations by the government and government officials that are not founded on sound science."
RIVERS: "...[W]hat I was asking about is peer-reviewed articles [by] scientists who are...doing this work on a regular basis. Can you give me an example of some peer-reviewed publications that you consulted in formulating your opinion that there's no [sound] science?
DOOLITTLE: "Well, you're going to hear from one of the scientists today, Dr. Fred Singer."
RIVERS: "Dr. Singer doesn't publish in peer-reviewed documents."
DOOLITTLE: "[I]'m not going to get involved in a mumbo-jumbo of peer-reviewed documents. There's a politics within the scientific community, where they're all too intimidated to speak out once someone has staked out a position...And under this Congress, we're going to get to the truth and not just the academic politics."
RIVERS: "[T]he general way to feel certain that you're getting good science is that you put your ideas out in a straightforward way in a peer-reviewed publication and you allow others who are doing the same work to make comments, to criticize, to replicate your findings. And what I'm asking you, in your search for good science, is what peer-reviewed documentation did you use to come up with your decision? What good science did you rely on?"
DOOLITTLE: "My response to you is, it is the proponents of the ban that have the burden of producing the good science. I do not have that burden."
Later during the same hearing, House majority whip Tom DeLay was asked about his position opposing a ban on ozone depleting substances. Had he consulted the latest scientific assessment in ozone depletion (WMO/UNEP, 1994) put together by a team of virtually all of the relevant researchers publishing in peer-reviewed publications on the subject? He replied that he had not, because "Well, I just haven't been presented with the study of late." He also launched into a criticism of peer-reviewed science, claiming that "the conclusion is usually written before the study is even done, in many cases." DeLay cited Toxic Terror by Dr. Elizabeth Whelan to support his criticism of peer-reviewed science. But according to the Columbia Journalism Review, Dr. Whelan praises the nutritional value of fast food in her writings, and dismisses the links between fatty diets and heart disease--but receives funding from Burger King, Oscar Meyer, Frito Lay, and Land O' Lakes (Kurtz, 1990). Unfortunately, our House Majority Leader is not the only one who relies on Dr. Whelan's "science". PR Watch notes that USA Today cites Whelan's American Council on Science and Health think tank as one of its most frequently-quoted sources for information on public health issues."

Dr. Fred Singer, the expert whom Representative Doolittle referred to, has testified before Congress numerous times, and is probably the most widely quoted skeptic on the ozone hole and global warming issues. Unfortunately, Dr. Singer cannot be considered an active scientist publishing in the peer-reviewed literature, or even an objective informed critic. Dr. Singer touts himself as having "published more than 200 peer-reviewed scientific papers over the course of his career". However, Dr. Singer's contributions to atmospheric science have been essentially zero since 1971. A search for his relevant publications in the atmospheric sciences reveals two peer-reviewed pieces since 1971: a 2-page "Technical Comment" criticizing a study showing increased UV-B light at the surface in response to ozone depletion (Michaels et. al., 1994), and one piece of original research, a 1988 paper on "nuclear winter" (Singer, 1988). A search of the Science Citation Index, the comprehensive scientific journal database that indexes virtually every citation a journal article gets in the peer-reviewed scientific literature, reveals that this paper, which Dr. Singer calls a "key research publication", has been cited exactly zero times, as of 2004 (for comparison, Dr. Steven Schneider's 1988 publication in Nature on the same topic, "Simulating the climatic effects of nuclear war", has gotten 16 citations). Furthermore, the think tank Dr. Singer founded and currently runs, The Science and Environmental Policy Project, has received substantial industry funding, including contributions from Exxon, Shell, ARCO, Unocal, and Sun Oil, calling into question the objectivity of his testimony (Gelbspan, 1998).

Trumpet discredited scientific studies and myths supporting your point of view as scientific fact.

The skeptics primarily published in non-peer-reviewed newspapers, magazines, books, and think tank publications. Publications that do not undergo peer-review are frequently filled with factual errors, distortions, and opinionated statements that greatly confuse the public on issues where there is no scientific uncertainty. For example, numerous critics of the ozone hole discovery (e.g., Singer, 1989, Bailey, 1993; Bast et. al., 1994) claimed that Professor G.M.B. Dobson had measured an ozone hole in 1956 in the Antarctic, and thus an Antarctic ozone hole was a normal natural occurrence. This myth arose from a misinterpretation of an out-of-context quotation from a review article (Dobson, 1968), where he mentioned that when springtime ozone levels over Halley Bay were first measured, he was surprised to find that they were about 150 Dobson Units below springtime levels in the Arctic. The skeptics repeatedly refer to "an ozone hole 150 Dobson Units below normal" that was discovered in 1957, when in fact the levels discovered in 1957 were normal for Antarctica. A trip to the British Antarctic Survey's web site will confirm that no such ozone hole was measured in the 1950s. Another myth the skeptics repeat states that a French scientist found an Antarctic ozone hole in 1958 (Bailey, 1993). There were measurements in 1958 that found large ozone loss in the Antarctic, but these measurement have been found to be false, due to instrument error. A study in Science magazine (Newman, 1994) concluded, "There is no credible evidence for an ozone hole in 1958."

To be fair, environmentalists were also guilty of using discredited myths to support their positions. For example, in 1992, The New York Times reported ozone depletion over southern Chile had caused "an increase in Twilight Zone-type reports of sheep and rabbits with cataracts" (Nash, 1992). The story was repeated in many places, including the July 1, 1993 showing of ABC's Prime Time Live. Al Gore's book, Earth in the Balance, repeated the myth, stating: "In Patagonia, hunters now report finding blind rabbits; fishermen catch blind salmon" (Gore, 1992). A group at Johns Hopkins has investigated the evidence and attributed the cases of sheep blindness to a local infection ("pink eye") (Pearce, 1993).

Point to the substantial scientific uncertainty, and the certainty of economic loss if immediate action is taken.

The science behind the estimation of ozone depletion is and was subject to a great deal of uncertainty. In early 1976, Rowland and Molina discovered that a chemical reaction involving chlorine nitrate might reduce ozone destruction from their previous estimate of 7-13% to about 7%. One editorial in the New York Daily News in 1976 concluded, "Now that scientists have been put in the position of crying wolf, who will listen to the new warnings?" Detractors also pointed to the fluctuating estimates of eventual global ozone depletion provided in reports by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences as justification that since the science was so uncertain, action should not be taken.

Long-term Ozone Depletion Estimates from National Academy of Sciences Reports

YearDepletion Estimate
19762-20% (7% most likely)

Of course, in the end, it did turn out that the estimates of ozone depletion were quite inaccurate--they were far too low! No scientist anticipated the stunning 70% losses of ozone that appeared in the Antarctic ozone hole, nor the 30% losses in ozone that appeared in the Arctic. The lesson to be learned here should be this: just because the reality is uncertain is not an excuse to delay action. The reality could be far worse than the expectation.

Use data from a local area to support your views, and ignore the global evidence.

Many skeptics pointed out that UV-B levels as measured in some U.S. cities actually declined in the 1980s and 1990s. This is true, and has been attributed to higher levels of pollution aerosol particles, which commonly cause 20% decreases in UV-B radiation in the summer (Wenny et. al., 2001). However, the relationship between ozone loss and increased UV-B light is well established. For each 1% drop in ozone levels, about 1% more UV-B reaches the Earth's lower atmosphere (WMO, 2002). Increases in UV-B of 6-14% have been measured at many mid and high-latitude sites over the past 20 years (WMO, 2002, McKenzie, 1999). At some sites about half of this increase can be attributed to ozone loss. Changes in cloud cover and surface albedo also play a part.

Disparage scientists, saying they are playing up uncertain predictions of doom in order to get research funding.

One CFC industry magazine stated in 1975, "The whole area of research grants and the competition among scientists to get them must be considered a factor in the politics of ozone" (Roan, 1985). A publication by the conservative think tank, The Cato Institute, argued that NASA's 1992 warnings of a potential ozone hole opening up over the Northern Hemisphere "were exquisitely timed to bolster the agency's budget requests" (Bailey, 1993).

Disparage environmentalists, claiming they are hyping environmental problems in order to further their ideological goals.

Dr. Fred Singer commented on environmentalists' reaction to Molina and Rowland's work linking CFCs with ozone depletion as follows: "The ecofreaks were ecstatic. At last, an industrial chemical--and produced by big bad DuPont and others of that ilk" (Singer, 1989).

Complain that it is unfair to require regulatory action in the U.S., as it would put the nation at an economic disadvantage.

Of course, other countries complained that they were unwilling to act until the U.S., the number one manufacturer and emitter of CFCs, showed leadership on the issue and took action first.

Claim that more research is needed before action should be taken.

Between 1974 and 1987, the CFC industry and government officials continually asked for an additional three years for more research. Molina called this tactic, "the sliding three years".

Argue that it is less expensive to live with the effects.

In 1987, the Reagan Administration officials advocated a "Personal Protection Plan" as an alternative to controlling CFC emissions. Scoffers noted that if each American bought 2 bottles of sunscreen, a hat and pair of sunglasses, the bill would come to $8 billion for the nation. They also asked how Americans would go about putting sunscreen and hats on cows and stalks of corn, since plants and animals are adversely affected by UV light, as well.


In a 1984 interview in The New Yorker, Rowland concluded, "Nothing will be done about this problem until there is further evidence that a significant loss of ozone has occurred. Unfortunately, this means that if there is a disaster in the making in the stratosphere we are probably not going to avoid it." These prophetic words were proved true the very next year with the discovery of the Antarctic ozone hole. Luckily, it appears that serious damage to the planet was averted with the swift implementation of the Montreal Protocol. Unfortunately, it appears that we have not learned our lesson from the past 30 years' experience with the ozone-CFC debate. Once again, we find a theory that has wide support in the scientific community being attacked by a handful of skeptics, publishing outside of the peer-reviewed scientific literature, their voices greatly amplified by the public relations machines of powerful corporations and politicians sympathetic to them. The skeptics have trotted out the same bag of tricks used in the CFC-ozone depletion debate, this time to delay any response to the threat of global warming. And once again, it will likely take a disaster to change things--unless we wise up to their tricks.

View the Ozone Hole FAQ

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