Appalachian Basin

Fact Check: Natural Gas Experts

Nicole sorts through the “everyone’s an expert” mentality on natural gas development to get to the heart of who the real experts are on this topic (NOTE: It’s not the actors or politically correct academics).

There is a lot of information circulating in the media and on the internet about natural gas development. Much of this stems from meetings held around the area where so-called experts step up to the plate in an attempt to educate the public.  But, how do you determine when a worthwhile event is being held, if a speaker really is an expert and if that expertise is on the subject they are discussing?  Last week we looked at how to fact check anecdotal natural gas stories, and today we’ll take a look at how to do the same with the many meetings taking place on the controversial topic of natural gas development.

Everyone’s an Expert

Sometimes when I’m sitting at meetings about natural gas development I feel like I’m trapped in a Holiday Inn Express commercial. You know the one, “Are you a doctor?  No, but I slept in a Holiday Inn Express last night.” It sounds silly, but the reality is, anyone with access to the internet now-a-days seems  to claim they are experts. “Are you a petroleum engineer?  No, but I saw a video last night on fracking.”  They’re careful to use the slang term, of course, and apply it to all of natural gas development.

Having many “experts” leads, inevitably, to many meetings on the topic across Pennsylvania and New York — every night and often multiple events daily.  If it’s overwhelming for those of us whose jobs require staying up to speed on this frantic activity, it has to be close to impossible for the average citizen hoping to learn real information about natural gas development in their community. So, let’s take a look at two such meetings in our region and how one might evaluate the “experts.”  Here’s one:

Wilkes University Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, November 7th from 7:30 – 9:00 PM: Dr. Simona Perry, an applied anthropologist who works at the intersection of environmental science, community health, and public policy, will discuss “The Community and Environmental Health Implications of Shale Gas Development.” The talk will share some of the observations and analyses from on-going ethnographic fieldwork in Marcellus shale gas communities of the Endless Mountains in Pennsylvania from 2009-2012.

And, here is the other:

Wyoming Seminary, November 5, 7 PM: Geologist Dr. Larry Cathles from Cornell University will address the geology of the Marcellus Shale natural gas deposit. Cathles is a co-leader of the oil and gas thrust of the Cornell KAUST Program at the KAUST-­Cornell Center for Energy and Sustainability, and director of the Cornell Institute for the Study of the Continents.

Break It Down

So, how does one decide if it’s worthwhile to hear such folks, if there is a bias of which the attendee should be aware or if the speaker is even qualified to speak on the given topic?  Well, there are a few questions to be answered:

  • Who is speaking?  What is their background expertise?
  • Does the topic match the expertise of the speaker?  What qualifies this speaker to present on this topic?
  • Who is hosting or sponsoring the event?  Is it an educational institution, the natural gas industry, an activist group, government, etc.?
  • Who funded the research if it is a research based presentation?  What company or organization does the speaker work for or represent?

These are questions relatively easy to answer with a few minutes at your laptop.  Let’s take a look at how these presentations stack up.

Who is speaking? What is their background expertise?

Dr. Simona Perry is described in the flyer as an anthropologist. If we look at her curriculum vitae, her educational degrees are actually in wildlife conservation and marine affairs, not anthropology (and certainly not geology or petroleum engineering).

2009 Ph.D., Wildlife & Fisheries Conservation (Human Dimensions), University of Massachusetts Amherst
Dissertation: More than one river: local, place-based knowledge and the political ecology of restoration along the Lower Neponset River, Massachusetts
1999 M.S., Marine Affairs, University of Washington, Seattle
Thesis: An integrated risk-based approach to large whale status reviews: implementation of U.S. Public Law 95-632
1995 B.S.,
Wildlife Conservation, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Dr. Larry Cathles

Dr. Larry Cathlesexperience includes earning his Ph.D. from Princeton University and professorship at Cornell University.  He came to Cornell as an earth scientist who addresses the subject from the perspective of a physicist.  From his bio: “His fundamental approach is to construct physical process models that predict chemical change; to develop models that simulate the chemical alteration caused by the movements of water in the subsurface for example.  Cathles has published over 110 peer-reviewed publications and a book: ‘The Viscosity of the Earth`s Mantle.’  Presently he is a co-leader of the oil and gas thrust of the Cornell KAUST program and Director of the Cornell Institute for the Study of the Continents.”

“Professor Cathles’ research currently has two main foci.  The first is to model the response of the earth to the load redistributions that occurred over the last glacial cycle at a spatial resolution high enough that all load harmonics that induce flow in the mantle are resolved.  His second research focus is modeling chemical changes induced when fluids flowing through rock move across gradients in temperature, pressure, and salinity.”

Cathles sure sounds like a guy who knows his subject.

Does the topic match the expertise of the speaker?  What qualifies this speaker to present on this topic?

Let’s look at the topics. Dr. Cathles’ presentation is a bit of a no-brainer as he is a geologist speaking on the geology of the Marcellus Shale.  This makes sense and seems to be well within his realm of expertise.

Dr. Perry’s is a bit harder to discern. Looking through her curriculum vitae, most of her experience and presentations center around marine biology and wildlife conservation efforts.  If her presentation was focused solely on environmental impacts of the Marcellus Shale as they pertain to aquatic and other wildlife, then, yes, she would be highly qualified for the presentation.  But, it’s not.

Dr. Perry’s presentation also has a health component, but she has no background, as evident from her curriculum vitae, in any field of health.  She is not a toxicologist or any form of health professional.

She did secure funding from the Mellon Foundation to do a research study in Bradford County on the environmental, sociological, psychological and political impacts of Marcellus development as can be seen in this video of her presentation at the 2011 Epic No Frack event (4:40) where she exhorts her audience to “get to know people in fossil-fuel impacted communities and join them in their fight to save their homes and families” (not that there is any bias there, of course):

She says she spent two years (as of the video) conducting research, through interviews of residents, and apparently listening to poetry, in Bradford County.  From the video it is not apparent who she interviewed, but a search for the group P.L.G.A.S., which she says formed as a result of the focus groups, reveals anti-gas activist Carolyn Knapp was one participant.  The video indicates it’s all largely anecdotal research and lacks scientific data to back up what has been said, limiting the ability of attendees to fact check the information.

And, the question still remains: What qualifies Perry to research, analyze, and speak on any of these topics beyond environmental impacts?

Who is hosting or sponsoring the event?  Is it an educational institution, the natural gas industry, an activist group, government, etc.?

Both events have enjoyed sponsorship by educational institutions; Wilkes University and Wyoming Seminary, a private high school, so one would expect little bias from hosting organizations.  Yet, at the same time, Wilkes has been hosting an array of not-so-scientific speakers as of late, which does raise some questions, doesn’t it?

Who funded the research if it is a research based presentation?  What company or organization does the speaker work for or represent?

The Andrew Mellon Foundation paid for the research about which Simona Perry speaks.  It includes this decidedly unprofessional remark among its page 39 conclusions, which tells us something about this foundation’s standards (emphasis added):

All had experienced bullying by one of the largest natural gas companies operating in Bradford County, and shared disappointment and worry about the rapid rate of developments and lack of political leadership.

The Mellon Foundation has over $5 billion of assets and spends its income on a wide variety of causes ranging from music to legitimate conservation causes so its sponsorship is hardly a disqualification. But it also adds no particular value or credibility to studies financed, as the above statement vividly illustrates.

Here, on the other hand, is a summary of some research by Larry Cathles that appears to have recieved no outside funding.  Notwithstanding this, it’s important to understand funding by itself doesn’t necessarily sway science.  Tony Ingraffea, for example, regularly talks about funding he got over an 8-year period from Schlumberger, yet he has made career recently out of attacking natural gas development in his own neighborhood.

The bottom line is that funding is just one consideration among many.  A prudent observer will ask about it, take the answer into account and judge the research on the basis of its professionalism and factual content (or lack thereof).

How Should I Decide What to Attend?

We can’t answer that for anyone, as “worthwhile” is in the eye of the beholder and different topics peak the interests of different folks. As one can see from the above though, it’s important to know who the presenter is and what expertise and bias they bring to the table. Know the biases, ask thoughtful questions, and do further research to come to your own conclusions on what’s been discussed. Everyone’s an expert these days–it’s up to you to make sure they’ve earned the title.


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