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Let's Not Be So Quick on the Cleburne Quakes

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Published June 16, 2009 By JACQUIELYNN FLOYD


Does gas drilling cause earthquakes? Beats me. Are the tremors that have hit Cleburne lately minor seismic nonevents, or are they harbingers of the apocalypse? I dunno.

Here's a question, though: Why do so many people think they do know? How come partisans who are not geologists are racing ahead of the data and waging ideological warfare over something they know next to nothing about?

"It is a fact that drilling cannot cause earthquakes," said one commenter when I innocently raised the issue on our blog last week. "Alarmist reporting!" charged another, as if just posing the question were tantamount to choosing sides.

The most self-evident "fact" in all this is that actual scientists are cautious about expressing absolute certainty on the issue. It's only when it becomes a political argument that there's no quarter given for dissent or disagreement.

Here's a quick sampling of headlines from recent days:

"Quake probably not caused by drilling activity," (Cleburne Times-Review); "Cleburne quakes probably related to gas drilling, expert says" (us); "Drilling might be culprit behind Texas earthquakes" (The Associated Press).

Yet all the reporting quoted the same handful of respected geologists. Nobody's lying here; it just depends on which expert source you decide to lead with.

It's entirely understandable that people have strong opinions. Easy to write a tremor off as a "minor seismic event" when it's not your house shaking under your feet; it's also easy to dismiss support for gas drilling as selling out to Satan when it's not your job or your royalty check. It's no surprise that there are competing interests here.

But it would be nice if people weren't so quick to choose sides and commence screaming before there has even been an examination of the issue.

The Cleburne City Council is bringing in Southern Methodist University geologists to measure any further seismic activity. This strikes me as a prudent step, considering that the community has experienced the first five quakes in its century-and-a-half history, all in the last two weeks.

Yes, this comparatively benign step has already engendered controversy. Some folks seem to resent the notion that a bunch of smarty-pants science fellers from Dallas should presume to comment on their drilling operations.

At the same time, members of the stop-drilling crowd are already dismissing whatever it is that SMU will come up with, writing off its geologists as gas-industry stooges even though they have, as yet, reported nothing. "It's the fox guarding the henhouse," one blogger huffed.

Well, why say you don't want to hear it before it's even said? Don't people want to make informed decisions?

This story, in some ways, parallels an angry fight going on in Austin, which involved two sides who venomously castigate each other as "tree-huggers" and "rednecks."

After a massive branch fell off a pecan tree and crushed some poor guy's neck at Barton Springs last summer, the city started looking closely at grand trees around the spectacular, spring-fed pool. Some of the trees, arborists concluded, need to be cut down.

The issue has heated up to an arborilogical Armageddon, with people shouting insults at each other over what ought to be a straightforward policy decision made on the basis of the best available science.

We have centuries of dogged, wrongheaded ideology behind us, from the denial of heliocentricity to the persistent belief that fevers could be cured by bleeding patients with leeches.

With that kind of a track record, you'd think amateurs would be more careful about rushing to make unqualified declarations.

It's easy to say you're sure. Especially when you don't have to prove it.

About the author

Ms. Jacquielynn Floyd

Ms. Floyd is a reporter for The Dallas Morning News.

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