The debate over the extraction of shale gas through hydraulic fracturing has dominated public attention throughout the United States, particularly in the northeastern states where development of the Marcellus and Utica formations are especially active. Proponents view the process as a critical part of America’s move toward energy independence. Opponents express numerous concerns, especially that the toxins injected into the ground during hydraulic fracturing may degrade groundwater and surface waters. Industry critics also worry about potential degradation to air quality, natural ecosystems, and health and economic impacts within shale gas regions. Since many of the impacts are poorly known, proponents and opponents alike point to the need for “more study” to resolve the debate. Ideally, concerns should be addressed by sound objective information if three conditions are met: (1) excellent science is performed by unbiased researchers, (2) the research is effectively communicated to diverse stakeholders, (3) the stakeholder communities accept the research findings and use it to guide policy. But what evidence is present to show whether these conditions being met?
Several studies were published in 2011 addressing impacts to both groundwater and greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, the public’s reaction to those investigations has been disheartening. Studies critical of shale gas development have been embraced by industry critics, but rejected by proponents. The opposite is true for studies that show impacts of shale development to be negligible. Stakeholders displayed a disturbing tendency to cherry-pick the science that they trust, rejecting those studies that disagreed with their preconceived positions. To facilitate wise decision-making, opponents and proponents alike must put aside their preconceived biases and view the science more objectively. But is that possible? To achieve more effective use of science in public decision-making on shale gas development, we recommend that: (1) scientists perform their work in a way that avoids even the appearance of bias, (2) educators prepare documents aimed at the public that translates the findings, and clearly explains strengths and weaknesses of the scientific literature, and (3) both groups work with sociologists to identify strategies to ensure that research findings are accurately accepted by stakeholders.