Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Sociologist taps in to drilling debate

By Steve Reilly
Staff Writer
Morning Times
Tuesday, January 19, 2010

TOWANDA — Questions over the possible environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing — whereby a 3.5 million gallon mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the ground to release natural gas locked thousands of feet beneath the surface of the Earth — are fueling a firestorm of debate that only escalates as drilling activity increases in Bradford County and the Marcellus Shale.

While scientific controversy swirls about, Abby Kinchy, a professor at Renssalear Polytechnic Institute and native of Milan, Pa., has recently embarked on an ambitious research project to study the divisive issue through a much different lens: sociology.

Kinchy attended Athens Area High School and received her Ph.D in Sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2007. Her specialty within the field is the study of public debates rooted in scientific uncertainty, a pursuit that has taken her to Mexico and Canada to study the debate over genetically modified foods and across the United States to study perceptions of nuclear power.

Now, her focus has shifted homeward, where the energy industry is erecting dozens of new rigs each week in an area that hasn’t traditionally been host to oil and gas activities.

The fact that questions over the science behind hydraulic fracturing have raised such heated tempers, she said, is not atypical of other conflicts she has studied.

“I think that that’s not unusual in environmental conflicts,” Kinchy noted. “We see this in a whole range of different environmental issues where people are on lots of different sides, and everybody is trying to figure out what the science is, and what science can tell you.”

Kinchy explained that she believes that since it is not science alone that is causing the debate, science alone isn’t capable of resolving the differences within communities stemming from questions about hydraulic fracturing.

“(In) many controversies about environmental issues, the answers aren’t going to come from science,” she said. “Even if we have all the answers about water pollution, I don’t think that the controversy about gas drilling will go away.”

Kinchy explained that her work will involve three phases. First, she will conduct interviews with various stakeholders, including representatives of oil and gas companies, industry workers and subcontractors, landowners, landowner groups, local and regional environmental advocacy groups, geologists, water experts, oil and gas engineers, and health researchers. The interviews, she said, will help her get a sense of the scope of the questions that surround the debate.

Then, she said, she will begin conducting focus groups with a wider range of community members to get a sense of where each person stands on the issue.

Finally, she will conduct a survey of area populations to test some of the hypotheses that she came up with about the reasons for the wide range of perceptions.

“I want to be able to explain public perceptions on the impacts of Marcellus Shale drilling on water resources,” Kinchy explained. “I think that by understanding the underlying causes about the disagreement about the water impacts of gas drilling, decision-makers will be better equipped to reach more effective compromises on this issue.”

Rather than personally or academically taking sides in the debate over hydrofracking’s impact on water quality, Kinchy said, she hopes, through her work “to be a translator between people who have very different ways of thinking and talking about the risks and benefits of shale gas drilling.”

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