By Jonathan Purtle
Innocent until proven guilty — it’s a great principle for creating a criminal justice system that protects individuals from wrongful conviction and a tyrannical state, but not the best principle for creating a regulatory system that to protect the public from harmful toxins and irresponsible corporations. The precautionary principle is better suited to achieve these ends, and while not always embraced in the U.S., some states seem to be paying attention as they weigh the potential economic gains of hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”) against its potential consequences for the environment, animals and human health.
The precautionary principle, as formally articulated at the Wingspread Conference in 1998, states that: “when an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.” In other words, the burden of proof lies on entities to prove that their activities are not harmful to public health or the environment. Until then, government is expected to exercise precautionary measures and regulate the activities as if they were in fact.
Debates about the regulation, or all out banning, of fracking practices have largely centered on the state of scientific evidence proving a direct and causal relationship between fracking and adverse consequences for the environment and human health. Ecological systems are extremely complex, and proving such causation beyond a reasonable doubt is difficult – as it is for any number of relationships in the real world, which is far tricker to study than in a strictly controlled laboratory setting. While evidence of water contamination (in Wyoming and Pennsylvania and in humans and animals) and earthquakes (in Ohio and other states) is abundant, it hasn’t been enough to prompt most state officials, including Gov. Tom Corbett of Pennsylvania, to take strong regulatory action.