‘Experts’ In The Media World Of 2019

Frac operation. Image: Halliburton

Recently I talked about the incredible depth of science, engineering and business expertise resident in the Canadian oil and gas industry — and how it must be better harnessed to provide facts and perspective about critical issues of the day to governments, regulators, and concerned members of the public. But a few months ago, I castigated various scientists for providing “expert” opinion, very inexpertly, on policy and regulatory matters. 

Where’s the line? How do experts define the limits of their expertise? And how does the public know who they should listen to on specific issues? It’s really difficult in the noisy media world of 2019.

It comes down to a key point — good science informs good policy and regulation, but so do many other things. Scientists who have spent all their time “peering down the microscope” (so to speak) are experts on that science, and their expertise must be heard. But if they haven’t devoted similar research and thought to the many other economic, business and societal issues that inform good policy, they are not policy / regulatory experts. 

For example, a geoscientist who has been focused on developing Duvernay resource distribution and drilling locations should not be formulating hydraulic fracturing policy and regulations — at least not on his/her own. Similarly, a researcher building climate models should be respected for opinions on past and future climates, at least within the areas he/she has been investigating. But that doesn’t make that researcher an “expert” on climate change policy. Or — reaching for an example the general public can better relate to — an expert automotive engineer, who understands everything there is to know about the mechanical performance of automobiles, shouldn’t be creating traffic laws.

So who is an expert? I think the answer is that there are many “experts,” but their expertise is in the context of the work they’ve actually done. I’ve appeared in court as an expert witness, where the first order of business is for the court to define and accept the limits of my expertise. They will accept my expert testimony about petroleum geology, but not about reservoir engineering, facilities, or project economics. I know about and understand those things, but if the court wants expert opinions about them, they will ask the appropriate experts — not me. It’s the combined expertise of many experts addressing all the relevant issues that supports reasonable and well-considered decisions.

In the public domain, however, many people with very limited expertise hold themselves out as “experts” — and they can do a lot of damage when reaching conclusions or recommending actions beyond their limited scope.

For example, the “Peak Oil” craze in the early 2000s caused upset on energy and financial markets. An important player in the movement was Matt Simmons, an investment banker who presented himself as an energy industry expert. He wrote Twilight in the Desert, predicting that Saudi Arabia would soon experience a “severe, irreversible decline” in oil production that would upset world markets. The jacket notes call it “one of the most important books of this still-young century.”

Simmons was granted the status of expert by many based on his business connections, and the fact that he quoted a number of reservoir engineering papers on the performance of selected Saudi oil pools. Real experts — engineers and geoscientists working in reservoir development and management — rolled their collective eyes at seeing apocalyptic statements published by a non-expert who clearly did not understand the technical issues. Fourteen years later, Saudi production levels have been maintained, and the country remains very lightly explored with immense future potential.

On the most impactful technical issue of the 21st century — climate change — reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) are held out as representative of hard, expert science on the issue. While the IPCC has commissioned some excellent science, it addresses only climate science in an expert fashion, and few or none of the myriad other aspects required to build sensible climate policy. 

Despite this fact, activists and unfortunately many governments regard IPCC “Summary for Policymakers” overviews as definitive expert guidance on what must be done to “combat climate change.”

So we see completely unqualified ENGOs advising policymakers how to avoid “climate catastrophe” based on science they don’t understand, and without expert business, economic, and societal analysis input. As a result, wasteful, inefficient and ineffective “green” policies have been enacted by (among others) the Ontario and Alberta governments in recent years. These are driven by the panicked urge to cut carbon dioxide emissions with little informed analysis about how to do so efficiently, or what the outcomes would be. Very predictably, billions have been spent with very poor results.

In fact, expert analysis of climate change from economic and policy perspectives, led by Nobel-winning economist William Nordhaus, suggest that the actions required to achieve the Paris Accord two-degree warming benchmark would cost humankind far, far more than undertaking relatively modest emission-reduction strategies combined with spending on mitigation of potential environmental damages. Society must demand, and act upon, this sort of comprehensive analysis before allowing the expensive, ineffective actions governments undertake in order to “do something.”

Closer to home for us in the oilpatch, hydraulic fracturing continues to suffer opposition from a host of non-experts, based on essentially non-existent issues dredged up from truth-deficient “documentaries” (Gasland, Shattered Ground, etc.).

Nova Scotia’s 2014 Expert Panel on Hydraulic Fracturing determined that fracturing could proceed with appropriate caution and consultation, yet their comprehensive expertise was ignored in favour of a politically-motivated moratorium on fracturing. British Columbia charged a highly expert three-person panel in 2018 with investigating risks around fracturing, and they came back with a report recommending selected further studies to further improve an already comprehensive regulatory regime, with no suggestion of an HF ban. But the wild tales of imminent catastrophe around water resources and seismicity continue in the “green” press, dominated by “resource analysts” and “journalists” untroubled by their utter lack of scientific expertise. And the United Kingdom’s nascent onshore unconventional gas industry is again on its deathbed as the government refuses to accept expert advice and experience regarding HF risks, and instead responds to non-expert hysteria.

Good decision-making on critical and complex issues requires expert knowledge from many sources. We have to get the science right, but that’s only the beginning. We have to get societal rights and concerns, economics, and practical possibilities right as well — and we need expert input in all these areas. Finally, we need political decision-makers (with their own expert advisors) who can understand and incorporate these diverse inputs to formulate reasonable policy and regulations.  

The world, and Canada in particular, sorely lacks this foundation to support reasoned, intelligent decisions and policy.