Fan of the desert


Desert ecologist Daniel Patterson of the Center for Biological Diversity has been involved in numerous issues in Nevada, most recently the sage grouse (known in the Great Basin as the sage hen) and fracking.

What is the Center for Biological Diversity?

It is a national, nonprofit organization.

Other than fracking, what are its interests?

Most of our focus is actually on conservation and recovery of endangered species, so we've been doing a lot of work on sage grouse and, in southern Nevada especially, a lot of work on desert tortoise conservation and recovery. … Specifically in Nevada, with a big component of work on public lands, U.S. public lands—BLM, National Forest Service, parks, basically land under the Department of Interior or USDA.

What is the objection to fracking?

Well, number one, the biggest objection, I think—part of the reason we have such a diverse coalition—is concern for water, water both in quantity and quality. About 70 percent of Nevada is in a state of extreme or exceptional drought, according to the USDA drought monitoring data, which is pretty much the standard. And fracking uses millions of gallons of water … and then it injects water in a toxic mix of chemicals back into the ground, which poses a severe risk for groundwater contamination, which has happened in other parts of the country. Our big concern is we don't think it's worth the risk to Nevada's water supply or water availability or water quality for a very risky and marginal oil and gas play.

So far it does not appear that regulators or the courts are friendly to stopping fracking.

Well, voters have been very aggressive at banning fracking. For example, in places like Denton, Texas, which had a lot of fracking, voters actually came out in November and put in a ban … because they'd had so much problem with the oil and gas companies not keeping their word, leaving messes, just not operating at all in a responsible manner. Other places like San Benito County, California, just put in a fracking ban [Ballot Measure J in last month's election] throughout the entire county. The state of New York, for example, has a fracking moratorium. So what I would argue is actually that even though the federal agencies have been slow to address some of the risks from fracking, people get it, and voters are starting to act. We do expect to have a bill introduced at the Nevada Legislature starting in February when they come back into session to address a Nevada ban on fracking to at least debate the issue. … I expect people to be pushing those campaigns [in 2015].

We live in a period when science appears to be up for grabs, when what is truth is not in the control of scientists, that commerce and advertising, public relations all seem to have a role in deciding what is science and what is not.

Well, that's a big problem. I'm a scientist. I'm an ecologist. We need to be making decisions based on the best available science. Science is not really open for debate. It's peer-reviewed. It's provable, for the most part. Everyone's entitled to their own opinion or their own spin on things—certainly we see a lot of opinion and spin coming from big oil and gas corporations—on fracking, but people are not entitled to their own science. … There are some, especially some corporate interests, that want to kind of pick and choose what science they might like. But that's a big mistake, and the U.S. agencies are, in fact, mandated by law and by regulation to use the best available science in making decisions, but it is a concern that we do see oversized influence from oil and gas lobbyists to try to push bad ideas like fracking despite the risk to water and what science is showing.