A bad lesson in censorship
Published 12:26 a.m., Monday, April 4, 2011
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One might reasonably assume that the state's top staff geologist would have some relevant thoughts about drilling for natural gas. But good luck finding out what's on Langhorne B. Smith Jr.'s mind, now that the state has muzzled him.
If only irony were an alternative energy source. Here's the state Education Department --- an agency responsible for fostering knowledge -- barring Mr. Smith from talking to reporters after his comments on gas drilling caused a backlash among environmentalists -- who normally are the first to cry out when politics takes precedence over science.
We don't particularly agree with Mr. Smith on a few key points, either. But shutting down an informed voice is absolutely the wrong thing for the government to do, and for environmentalists to support, if only in their failure to denounce it.
As the Times Union's James M. Odato found, Mr. Smith has been forbidden to talk to reporters since he spoke out on hydraulic fracturing, a controversial process of extracting natural gas that the energy industry wants to employ in the vast Marcellus Shale formation that lies under six states.
We and many others have expressed concern about potential problems, including drinking water contamination. No permits have been issued in New York while the state Department of Environmental Conservation works on regulations and the federal Environmental Protection Agency studies the practice of hydrofracking.
Mr. Smith in an interview last month spoke positively of the Marcellus Shale's natural gas as a "huge gift" and characterized reports of water contamination as exaggerated and distorted.
He called for vigorous oversight of hydrofracking by the DEC and said natural gas could help relieve global warming and reliance on dirtier-burning fuels like coal.
Hydrofracking opponents, such as Environmental Advocates, the Sierra Club and United for Action, objected, with some suggesting that Mr. Smith's opinion is tainted because of his private work as an energy industry consultant.
The blowback apparently has made the Education Department uncomfortable enough to cite a protocol that requires employees to check with the agency's communications office before talking to reporters, or face "appropriate administrative action." The agency said it's looking into Mr. Smith's private work, too.
We've been down this unfortunate road before. The state's former wildlife biologist, Ward Stone, endured official intimidation, including a threat of transfer, for his dogged pursuit of pollution. He was an important voice on issues like the state's own now-defunct trash incinerator in downtown Albany, where his tests found evidence of pollution in residential neighborhoods. Environmentalists protested the state's attempts to silence him.
Not here, though. They're content to let a scientist they disagree with be gagged.
They should join us instead in calling on Education Commissioner David Steiner and the Board of Regents to relax their stifling policies and let public employees contribute to important public discussions without checking with official handlers. This debate should be all about finding the truth, not winning even at the cost of it.
The state Education Department bars a knowledgeable employee from talking about gas drilling.
Informed public policy won't come from silencing diverse views.