Hydraulic Fracturing: A Threat to Public Health? (Earthworks vs. the scientific method)
A new report from the environmental group Earthworks suggests that shale gas development, including hydraulic fracturing, “risks public health” in the state of Pennsylvania. In addition to the numerous problems with the report itself, a larger issue is passing anecdotal evidence off as hard science.
Uni Blake, a toxicologist who studies health issues relating to shale development, has fleshed out the main problem with Earthworks’ latest report (which could also be applied to a Cornell veterinarians’ “study” from earlier this year): findings of a subjective nature that rely on individuals’ recollections of symptoms. According to Blake, such “should not be allowed to take the place of quantitative measures and physical findings.”
Blake also identifies another significant problem with studies that rely on anecdotal evidence: confirmation bias. Organizations like Earthworks and researchers at Cornell (funded by anti-shale groups, including the Park Foundation) have a vested interest in painting oil and natural gas development in the worst possible light. Thus, they will “seek out information that confirms what they already believe, want to believe or want to avoid,” according to Blake – which in this case means talking to individuals who may be predisposed to provide negative feedback about development.
In fact, that’s exactly what Earthworks did, by its own admission. After admitting that the report “did not investigate additional factors that can influence health conditions or cause systems” – another way of saying they didn’t consider anything other than oil and gas development as the source of problems – Earthworks described how it found its participants:
Survey distribution was initiated through existing contacts in the target counties,” adding that the survey “was also distributed to individuals who expressed interest in participating directly to OGAP at public events.
In other words, Earthworks used its own base of support to “prove” a claim that the organization itself has been making for quite some time.
Just to clarify, this is not intended to dismiss concerns about development. People who have questions about impacts, especially those living in the proximity of oil and natural gas wells, deserve to have their questions answered with facts and hard evidence. A critical component of that conversation, however, is a discussion that occurs in good faith.
But that’s not what Earthworks has done, and that “good faith” component rarely happens when the impetus for alarm is made by groups ideologically opposed to oil and natural gas. By relying heavily if not exclusively on its own network of affiliates and allies, Earthworks simply worked backwards from a conclusion – i.e. shale development is harmful to our health – and packaged it up in a “report” designed to scare the public.
That’s not science, and it’s certainly not a good faith attempt to initiate a dialogue.
What’s more is that when groups like Earthworks release such reports, they actually do a disservice to people who genuinely want their questions answered – and who don’t tow the activist party line on issues related to oil and gas development.
It all begs an important question: What problems are we solving by leaping to conclusions and issuing “reports” that don’t address concerns, but are instead designed to score headlines and frighten landowners?
That might make for a great business proposition in terms of boosting fundraising – and donations to Earthworks are tax deductible! – but no one could credibly claim that it establishes a reality-based metric for understanding complicated public health issues.
Regulators Weigh In
State regulators and even federal officials have been looking into the issue of health impacts from oil and gas development. Here is a sampling of their findings:
· In Pennsylvania (home to the Marcellus shale), the Department of Environmental Protection conducted air quality tests in the northeast and southwest portions of the state. DEP “did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.”
· In Texas, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality concluded there were “no immediate health concerns from air quality” in the Barnett Shale region of north Texas. Those results were based on months of readings from state-of-the-art air monitors, and the fact that TCEQ found “no levels of concern for any chemicals” in its tests.
· A separate assessment by the Texas Department of State Health Services examined volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in and around the town of Dish, TX. DSHS concluded that “the pattern of VOC values was not consistent with a community-wide exposure to airborne contaminants, such as those that might be associated with natural gas drilling operations.”
· In California, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health recently completed a community health assessment (part of a broader study on environmental impacts) of the population living near the Inglewood Oil Field. That assessment concluded “there is not a detectable relationship between the activities at the Inglewood Oil Field and the health of the surrounding community.” Among other things, the study found no link between oil field activities and cancer rates, and that overall operations have not had an adverse impact on public health.
· According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, oil and gas extraction doesn’t even rank in the top 25 of industries with the highest rates of injuries and illnesses. BLS data also show that book publishers, tortilla manufacturers, radio broadcasters, and accountants have higher rates of illnesses than those working in the oil and gas industry (and we could reasonably expect that if there were significant and adverse health impacts from development, the people working on the actual well pads would be most susceptible).
This past summer, the Associated Press reported on the gap between what opponents of hydraulic fracturing claim with respect to public health and what scientists and experts have actually concluded. Unfortunately, Earthworks’ latest report does nothing to bridge that divide, and arguably only serves to widen it.