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When it comes to environmental policy, science isn’t always as helpful as lawmakers hope

Jonah Field
Kate St. John

Science has long been something we look to for answers. But when it comes to policy making, science can’t always provide the clear solutions lawmakers and the public want. That has to do with how science works and the politics that sometimes infiltrate. Two issues in Wyoming demonstrate uncannily well the shortcomings of science when it comes to decision making in the environmental sphere.

IRINA ZHOROV: Remember that scene in Ghostbusters, when Bill Murray’s character is pursuing a seemingly irrelevant line of questioning with a laid out woman as a concerned man stands by?

BILL MURRAY: Are you, Alice, menstruating right now?

CONCERNED MAN: What has that got to do with it?

BILL MURRAY: Back off man. I’m a scientist.

ZHOROV: We have this reverence for science, this trust. But what if we can’t always turn to science? What if science is sometimes as sleazy as Bill Murray in Ghostbusters? Who to trust then?

In Wyoming, this is a very real question right now. Take, for example, the issue of contaminated water in Pavillion. The Environmental Protection Agency came out with a study tentatively linking the contamination in Pavillion to fracking. Industry and the state said EPA’s study was flawed and are now starting work on their own study. If science is science, then why would the state’s results be any different from the EPA’s?

ANDREW ROSENBERG: If science was science and it was independent, in other words nobody had an interest in the outcome, then you’re right, there’s no problem.

ZHOROV: That’s Andrew Rosenberg, who directs the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists.       

ROSENBERG: There’s no methodology that is perfect, so if there are methodological issues, what might be the consequence of those methodological issues and what would be the more appropriate way that would deal with those consequences? In other words, are there biases in the results or not? So do the independent review without conflict of interest as opposed to backing away and handing it off to organizations that clearly have a conflict of interest.

ZHOROV: Arguably, Wyoming has a vested interest in the production of oil and natural gas. But let’s suppose, for argument’s sake, that science is science, after all. Even then, there are issues.

HAROLD BERGMAN: An honest scientific opinion is sometimes hard to come by because of the uncertainty.

ZHOROV: Harold Bergman is a professor at the University of Wyoming. He says even in good science there is the caveat of uncertainty, something, by the way, that Pavillion has a lot of.

BERGMAN: So within that range of uncertainty what we tend to do as human beings, or as a regulatory bodies, and sometimes as scientists, we tend to add our personal values or our government values to decide whether or not the answer is on this side of the uncertainty range or on that end of the uncertainty range.

ZHOROV: And the interpretation of the uncertainty could be ripe for politicking.

Take, for example, another issue in the state. Encana, an oil and gas company, is asking for an exemption to be able to pump waste water into the Madison Aquifer. Encana modeled the process and concluded that it would be safe. Then, the Powder River Basin Resource Council, an environmental group whose agenda is quite different from Encana’s, contracted Tom Myers, an independent hydrologist, to review Encana’s work. Which he did, and tentatively concluded it was not so safe. But…

MYERS: Remember, my study is a very cursory examination using some very basic numbers.

ZHOROV: There’s a reason Myers’ analysis was cursory.

MYERS: I cannot say whether Encana is correct or not correct because there is just no transparency to what they did.     

ZHOROV: Everybody agrees that science needs to be transparent to be trustworthy.

Rosenberg, of the Center for Science and Democracy, also says any science needs to be peer reviewed, something neither Encana nor the state have committed to in either the Pavillion work or the Madison Aquifer exemption modeling.  

So where does this leave policy makers and the public? Do they trust the EPA’s work when deciding on policy? The state’s? Encana’s? Myers’? 

Bergman says how we use our science is a philosophical question. Europe, he says, uses the precautionary principle, which leans towards absolute protection when there isn’t enough information.

BERGMAN: In the United States, by law, almost all of our regulatory laws rely instead on risk analysis, or risk benefit analysis. And so there we’re trying to get enough information to be able to make a parsed judgment about the probability of something being bad.

ZHOROV: Risk benefit analysis requires a lot of data, sometimes so much that everyone will privately tell you that it’s not feasible to obtain. That might just be the case in Pavillion. So the uncertainty could remain a crutch both sides can lean on there. Meanwhile, data or no data, regulations still have to be made.

Former Governor Dave Freudenthal says the dance between politicians and scientists is an ongoing one.

DAVE FREUDENTHAL: The availability of scientific information is desirable, but it isn’t always present when you have to make the decision and sometimes what you do is you make the decision on the best available information and you see that in the environmental area: best available control technology, maximum achievable control technology. What you see is an admission that public policy and science move at different rates.

ZHOROV: Freudenthal oversaw the sage grouse saga in the state, and implemented rules to protect the bird. He says they used the best available science knowing it wasn’t perfect.

FREUDENTHAL: The difficulty is that public policy and emotions may move faster than science. And the other thing is public policy and politics want clearly black and white answers. Science tends to be shades of grey.

ZHOROV: And sometimes that grey gets even murkier when special interests are involved. For Wyoming Public Radio, I'm Irina Zhorov.

Irina Zhorov is a reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She earned her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from the University of Wyoming. In between, she worked as a photographer and writer for Philadelphia-area and national publications. Her professional interests revolve around environmental and energy reporting and she's reported on mining issues from Wyoming, Mexico, and Bolivia. She's been supported by the Dick and Lynn Cheney Grant for International Study, the Eleanor K. Kambouris Grant, and the Social Justice Research Center Research Grant for her work on Bolivian mining and Uzbek alpinism. Her work has appeared on Voice of America, National Native News, and in Indian Country Today, among other publications.
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