Toward a less polarized energy-literate community

by the Paleontological Research Institution Marcellus Outreach Group

First presented in the Ithaca Journal (NY) on January 18, 2012

With a New Year upon us and the comment period for the most recent draft Marcellus shale SGEIS behind us, it is a good time to reflect on the next phase of public discussion of energy development and use in upstate New York.

What if shale gas drilling is permitted in New York? Then we will have no choice but to work together – both those who have been for and those who have been against drilling -- toward effective planning and regulation to produce the best possible outcome.  What if drilling is subject to continued delays or moratoria, or never occurs at all? Most of us will still be using fossil fuels, even as we begin to think (as some already are) about what could replace them.

In other words, no matter what happens with the Marcellus, debates about energy will not be over. What, then, will we need to make these continuing conversations useful and constructive, rather than polarizing and unproductive?

First, we all should understand where our energy comes from now and how our energy system is changing. Such closer inspection usually has a way of making potential solutions less black-and-white. For example, all large-scale energy development and use – coal, oil, nuclear, wind, hydrothermal, and natural gas -- has environmental costs. There is no way forward that is environmentally neutral. Conservation and increased efficiency can and must be part of the solution, but are simply not adequate answers to the entire challenge.

Second, we need accurate and up-to-date information. This can be a significant challenge, not only because there is so much information, but especially for “unconventional” energy sources like the Marcellus, for which scientists as a group lack good understanding about some major aspects, and for which much of the existing information is in current technical literature, where conclusions may not always agree and are often inaccessible to the general reader. Thus, it is important not only that information be publicly accessible, but that the public understand the sometimes rather unobvious processes of science by which this information is generated.

Third, we need to understand that, when addressing very complex technical issues like this, good science is necessary but not sufficient. What we do with scientific information can be as or more important than the information itself.

With this in mind, PRI's outreach on the Marcellus over the past two years has been based on two general goals: 1) to provide more in-depth, easier-to-read information, based on available data and literature, than is generally available elsewhere; and 2) to use a point of view and language that do not take a position for or against drilling. All of our materials have been externally reviewed by specialists on the respective topics, regardless of their point of view for or against drilling, and we try to be especially clear about points on which competent researchers disagree and why.

Fundamentally, our outreach strives to build evidence-based understandings of the complex issues surrounding the Marcellus Shale. Many readers like and value this approach, but a few critics on both sides of the issue have expressed frustration that the information we provide does not always support their particular positions. But science is about trying to figure out the way the world is, and is rarely a neat and tidy process with unambiguous answers. Especially with socially or economically important issues, science often trails far behind public calls for timely decisions. This is why the process of science -- and the process of talking about science -- are so vitally important.

No matter how clear or objective, the scientific information we are attempting to provide is not enough. It is also vital to continue to talk about what we do with such information.  Thus, PRI cooperates closely with many excellent local collaborative planning initiatives around energy. Tompkins County’s Planning Department has a forward-looking 2020 Energy Strategy.  The Tompkins County Climate Protection Initiative has multiple initiatives to conserve energy and lower the county's carbon footprint. Cornell Cooperative Extension has begun an Energy and Climate Change Program to work in rural communities around the State. PRI is also in the early stages of a new project to work with a variety of educators in rural areas to improve public energy literacy and planning long-term.

The discussions will continue, on many levels. But they should be informed, civil, and acceptance of the fact that there are no perfect solutions or final answers. Progress on such a complex topic is a never-ending process. This may be frustrating and, at times, exhausting. But there is no other way forward that takes account of all of the realities of both science and society.

PRI’s Marcellus materials, supported by funds from the National Science Foundation, are available at We plan to revise these periodically going forward as we continually work to deepen public understanding of the Marcellus Shale and of our larger energy system.

PRI’s Marcellus Outreach Group includes Rob Ross, Don Duggan-Haas, Kelly Cronin, and Warren Allmon.