Thursday, December 6, 2012

Shale and the Precautionary Principle (Preached at UU Society of Oneonta)

In 1945 the first studies came out about the danger of cigarettes.  By 1954 we had data linking smoking to cancer, we knew that the more you smoke, the more your chance of getting cancer increases, but we didn’t know how it was that smoking caused cancer.  It wasn’t until the 1990s, when science figured out the mechanism by which smoking causes cancer, that we had enough science necessary to effect law.  45 years passed between the moment we had our first evidence that cigarettes probably were dangerous and the moment when science could prove it for sure.  In that time 2 generations of Americans got hooked on cigarettes, and too many died. 

This morning I want to discuss the radical idea that if you have early warning signs something might be dangerous, you should act with caution.  It sounds like something your grandmother might say, doesn’t it?  “Better Safe than sorry” or “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”   And, in fact, the concept we are going to discuss today had it’s origins in the 1930s among German home makers:  “Forecaring.” It was first used in environmental law in Germany in the 1970s when the Black Forest was dying, and folks were concerned it might be connected to acid rain caused by power plant emissions.  Germany subsequently developed environmental law and policy which helped prevent further sickening of the forests, and which encouraged development of new, safer alternatives.  This principle of forecaring (or as it came to be known in English, “The Precautionary Principle”) was came to be used in the legal code of many countries, including the European Union.

In 1998 the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN) convened  a Wingspread conference to formalize the precautionary principle, and to imagine how it could be applied.  Their resulting statement of the principle is one that is widely used today: 

"When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically." 
"In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof."
This is crucial-   It’s not me that has to prove that the factory upstream from my house is emitting dangerous chemicals into the water table, it’s the “proponent of the activity,” say the company which produces the plastic toy or -- let's say Fracking fluid-- to prove that the products really are safe. That all sounds kind of like common sense, doesn’t it?  

So what is the context in which a principle like “better safe than sorry” is cutting edge environmental thinking?  Current environmental laws are set up with a “risk assessment” premise, which became standard practice in the United States in the mid-1980s and was institutionalized through the global trade agreements of the 1990s. Here’s how that works.  First a risk assessment estimates how much harm a product or process might cause.  “Next, policy makers attempt to decide how much harm is acceptable… but at no point in the risk assessment…are decision makers required to ask whether alternatives exist that would substantially reduce risk.” When the city of San Francisco was researching the Precautionary Principle, they wrote a white paper which explained it this way:

“For example, a risk assessment may attempt to define how many children will suffer developmental disorders or cancer after playing with a plastic toy that leaches chemicals of poorly understood toxicity. With this risk assessment in hand, policy makers may then attempt to define how many diseased children (one in 10,000? 100,000?) would be acceptable. This process provides no opportunity to examine an alternative option, in which toys are only made from materials known to be safe for children.”[iii]

The precautionary principle creates just that kind of opportunity to examine alternative options. 

 Throughout  this process, we need to make sure that all who are effected will be part of the conversation. So, if you want to build a toy factory in my neighborhood, following the precautionary principle my neighbors and I get to be involved in an open democratic process as the community determines the safest process for producing toys.

The precautionary approach seems more in line with our Unitarian Universalist values than the “Risk Assessment” model our policy makers use today.  As UUs, we like a good open, informed, democratic process, it’s right there in our 5th principle “use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Unitarian Universalists who affirm and promote a “Free and responsible search for truth and meaning” will find resonance with a principle that asks us to examine a full range of alternatives before acting.  And of course UUs are united in our  “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.”  To truly respect the complexity and of our inexorable relationship to the web of life, the inescapable truth that anything we do will always impact the people, animals, trees, soil and air with whom and from whom we live, so naturally it follows that  “when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken.”

I think the aspect of the Precautionary Principle that might be challenging for UUs is the idea that we can act (or choose not to act) before the science is conclusive.  We are skeptics who don’t automatically believe everything we hear or read.  When Chicken Little says “the sky is falling” we don’t want to be just another barnyard animal who follows her into Foxy Loxy’s lair.  After all, one of the sources of our living tradition is “the guidance of reason and the results of science” and here I am saying that “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” should have legal precedence over conclusive scientific data?  Clearly Chicken Little did not have enough data to justify his conclusion that the sky was falling.  But if those barnyard animals had taken seriously any misgivings about the safety of Foxy Loxy’s lair, their story would have ended much more happily. 

If you are going to leave your home and go live with Foxy Loxy because the sky is falling, you need to shore up some assumptions you are making about the sky falling and your assumptions about Foxy Loxy.  Misplaced certainty can be a dangerous thing.  A 2001 report written by the European Environment Agency recalled some of the worst examples of misplaced certainty about the safety of particular processes, a certainty which caused us to overlook early warning signs.  They included such examples as radiation, ozone depletion, asbestos, and Mad Cow disease, concluding that:  “Misplaced ‘certainty’ about the absence of harm played a key role in delaying preventive actions.” 

And why can’t we be more certain about the effects of such things?  Because “serious, evident effects such as endocrine disruption, climate change, cancer, and the disappearance of species can seldom be linked decisively to a single cause. Scientific standards of certainty may be impossible to attain when causes and outcomes are multiple; latent periods are long; timing of exposure is crucial; unexposed, “control” populations do not exist; or confounding factors are unidentified.”[iv] 

All our scientists would be unemployed if it weren’t for the reality that new things are learned and proven and dis-proven every day.  Theologically speaking, Unitarian Universalism is a tradition grounded in the belief that revelation is ongoing.  We believe new truth is constantly coming into human awareness, and that it will go on being revealed forever.  We believe deeply that we will never have truly ALL the data, will never unravel all the mysteries of existence, but will keep learning and discovering as long as there is life.  Any promise of certainty should make us skeptical.

So the precautionary principle doesn’t ask us to reject science, just acknowledges that the scientific process is time consuming and that (as was the case for cigarettes) complete proof may not be ready in time to prevent harm.  So let’s take grandma’s advice and be “better safe than sorry.”

Right now those of us who live above the Marcellus Shale are embarking on a great adventure- that of high volume horizontal Hydraulic.  When Cornell Engineering Professor Ingraffea, spoke to a gathering at my church, he said there is a misconception that “fracking is a 60 year old well-proven technology.” In fact, he says, this process of slickwater production on multi-well pads has only been used in the last 5 years. “What we are doing is truly un-tried”, he says.[v]

I don't have to tell you the risks of Fracking. This congregation just passed a statement that says "The practice [of hydraulic fracturing] has been linked to removal of vast amounts of water from the natural water cycle, contaminated drinking water, noise and air pollution, seismic activity, forest destruction, habitat fragmentation and serious human and wildlife illness." Many of these dangers were listed in the original 424-page EPA report on Hydraulic Fracturing [vi]  and yet, the report concludes that the process could safely proceed with very little oversight, which is kind of a head scratcher to me. I have to wonder… if we had applied the precautionary principle in response to that original EPA report would we hear horror stories from towns like Dimock Pennsylvania where in 2009 “gas ignited in a water well and blew apart its concrete cover?” [vii]    If we had sat down with all involved parties in an open democratic fashion and examined the full range of alternatives, I have to imagine that Dimock residents would not be using bottled water for cooking and drinking 3 years later, nor would they be mired in this agonizing triangle with Cabot and the DEP as they try to prove that the chemicals now in their drinking water are there as a result of hydro-fracking.

Or, for example, what about those earthquakes we keep hearing about in the Midwest? Perhaps potential geological impact of fracking is another reason for precaution despite the fact that the science is not yet conclusive. A study by the U.S. Geological Survey showed a pronounced increase of earthquakes in the Midwest in data taken before and after the introduction of fracking to the area.  To Dr. Ellsworth, who conducted the study, this does not seem like a purely natural phenomenon, but the causation has not yet been proven conclusively. "There are many things we don't understand," says Ellsworth. "We're in ambulance-chasing mode where we're coming in after the fact." He noted that in 2009 only 3 percent of the roughly 75,000 hydraulic fracturing pads in the United States were monitored seismically and recommends collecting such data as a good precautionary measure.[viii] Doesn’t that seem like common sense, to gather data about the seismic potential of proposed drilling sites?

Hydro-fracking is a complex process that will have many different impacts on the eco-systems and communities it inhabits.  The  Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) on the drilling says there is not sufficient information about “long term non-lethal and interlocking effects”.  Current environmental law says that if science can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that hydro-fracking has caused harm, they can use these processes until it is proven conclusively that people were harmed by the process.  50 years it took the cigarette industry.  We can’t afford to wait that long to safeguard our water, our air, our health.  “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.”

Some of you who have been watching the New York State moratorium closely as the November 29 deadline approached are relieved to hear that the DEC applied for a 90 day extension (which I believe will include a public comment period) so that a review of health impacts can be finished. Though I live here in New York State,  I serve a congregation in Bradford County Pennsylvania, where Fracking has been underway for about 4 years now. In Bradford County we are, as Ellsworth said, “in ambulance chasing mode”. Things happen so fast that local residents feel unprepared and can hardly keep up with changes. City and County boards feel pressured to rush through things like the siting of wastewater  treatment center in a residential area [ix]. Here in New York we still have time, and it seems to me that if we apply the precautionary principle, waiting until the Health Commissioner completes a health impact review, and taking the time to make sure that review is transparent and uses solid science is just good common sense[x].

I heard a radio interview the other day with a frustrated representative of a New York landowner’s association. He was jealously describing at all the economic activity he sees just across the border in Pennsylvania. I wish he had sat with me last week at the community listening circle we held in our sanctuary for folks living in Bradford County, both leased and un-leased. They talked about the health problems friends are having- mostly headaches and dizziness. They talked about rents that have doubled and tripled leading to a housing crisis for the most vulnerable. They expressed their rage at being steamrolled into this process without democratic participation, their reticence to even talk about an issue that has pitted neighbor against neighbor, their fear about unknown environmental impacts, and their sadness about the loss of their country way of life as our quiet agricultural community becomes a noisy, crowded industrial center.

But here in New York, while our government gathers more data and the regulations are still being drafted, now is the time to participate in the public comment period, or to reach out to Governor Cuomo and to make your voice heard. Now is also the time to understand what plans your local towns and counties have in place for such a time when the moratorium may be lifted. I encourage all of you to mark your city or county council meetings on your calendar and make sure they are applying a little forecaring to what may be a long-term change in our communities.

Here in New York, there is still time to look before we leap.  We are just at the beginning of what is projected to be a 25-50 year process that will effect not only us here in New York and Pennsylvania, but people living above shale deposits in more than half the states in this country, and in countries around the world.  Now is the time for the Precautionary Principle. Now is the time for an ounce of prevention.  If we think there could be a risk of harm to the eco-system, to our drinking water, to our land, to our children, let’s slow down, bring together all the involved parties, and seek out the alternatives that will do the least harm.  Like mom always said, “better safe than sorry.”

[i] This example was used by Carolyn Raffensperger in her 2005 address to the Bioneers Plenary.

[ii] “Science & Environmental Health: Carolyn Raffensperger”

[iii] WHITE PAPER The Precautionary Principle and the City and County of San Francisco March 2003 p. 4

[iv] WHITE PAPER The Precautionary Principle and the City and County of San Francisco March 2003

[vi] Drill for Natural Gas, Pollute Water: The natural gas industry refuses to reveal what is in the mixture of chemicals used to drill for the fossil fuel By Abrahm Lustgarten and ProPublica

“Are leaking wells letting methane get into Dimock's water?” By Laura Legere (Staff Writer) Published: September 30, 2012
 [viii] “The Facts Behind the Frack: Scientists weigh in on the hydraulic fracturing debate” By Rachel Ehrenberg,  August 24, 2012


[x] Associated Press “NY agency to seek 90-day extension on frack regs"

No comments: