Activists Repackage Debunked Reports to Mislead Latino Communities on Health
The Clean Air Task Force (CATF) is out today with yet another report – this one claiming that emissions from oil and natural gas development are disproportionately impacting the health of Latino communities. But CATF’s misleading claims hinge on a pair of their previous reports, one being their thoroughly debunked “Threat Map” – which even the authors conceded had “data quality issues” and is “not a measure of actual risk” – and another report that collapsed under scrutiny from public health officials.
So with that in mind, here are four things to know about the activist groups and claims in the report, (which shows no indication that it was peer-reviewed by the way):
Fact #1: CATF’s claims are based on previous reports that lack credibility
CATF’s newest report relies on claims from a pair of their previous reports that have not stood up to scrutiny. From the report:
“Oil and gas facilities emit toxic air pollution and pollution that forms ozone smog. In two previous reports, “Fossil Fumes” and “Gasping for Breath”, CATF presented the public health impact of toxic air pollution and ozone smog, respectively, from the oil and gas industry. Here, we break out and discuss the public health impacts of these pollutants specifically for Latino communities.”
As EID has previously reported, when it comes to the “Fossil Fumes” report, CATF acknowledged its conclusions suffered from “data quality issues” and “uncertainties” and even conceded their own report is “not a measure of actual risk.”
For example, CATF drew its conclusions from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data in the National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) and National Emissions Inventory (NEI) to map places that exceed EPA’s “level of concern” for increased cancer risk – an area where risk is greater than one in a million. However, CATF acknowledged limitations to this data, stating:
“The EPA developed NATA to inform nation and local data collection and policy efforts. However, the agency emphasizes that because of data quality issues and uncertainties in the model, the data should be used cautiously.”
CATF even admits their data is not a measure of actual risk:
“[NATA] should be used to screen for geographic areas with high risk, not a measure of actual risk in specific locations.”
And when it comes to the “threat radius” cited in their latest report, CATF has this to say:
“The Threat Radius is the area within ½ mile of active oil and gas wells, compressors and processors. It indicates that those within it should be concerned; it is not a declaration that those within it will have negative health impacts. The Threat Radius does not quantify the threat posed by this pollution.” (emphasis added)
“Gasping for Breath”
When it comes to Gasping for Breath, the verdict is equally bad. In fact, when CATF released its report, Texas environmental regulators quickly discredited it, noting that CATF’s data do not square with the actual science. As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reports:
“State regulators say emissions from oil and gas operations are not a major contributor to air pollution in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, calling into question a recent environmental report linking methane leaks to an anticipated rise in asthma attacks.
But Texas Commission on Environmental Quality data shows that operations associated with the energy industry in Fort Worth and Dallas contribute 1.8 parts per billion to ozone levels on the worst days, from May to September, while planes, trains and automobiles contribute 14.1 parts per billion. Those measurements also were taken during the peak times of the ozone season, agency officials said.” (Emphasis added)
The Star-Telegram goes on:
“David Brymer, the agency’s director of air quality, voiced doubts about how Earthworks and the Clean Air Task Force used its computer models to produce the information and then how they analyzed that data. Brymer cautioned that they have insufficient information to entirely evaluate the environmental report.”
On top of criticism from public health experts, EID highlighted a number of problems with the report that raise serious questions about CATF’s newest conclusions, including reliance on outdated emissions estimates and a number of expert opinions and studies that contradict their claims.
Fact #2: Public health officials have debunked CATF’s health claims
CATF claims that Latino communities “have cause for concern” about health impacts from oil and natural gas development. From CATF’s report:
“More than 1.78 million, or 3 percent of Latinos, live in areas where toxic air pollution from oil and gas facilities is so high that the cancer risk due to this industry alone exceeds EPA’s level of concern.4 And 1.81 million Latino individuals (4 percent of the national Latino population) live within a half mile of an oil and gas facility—those within this half mile radius have cause for concern about potential health impacts from oil and gas toxic air pollution.”
Aside from the issues outlined above, recent comments from public health officials simply do not support CATF’s conclusions. A day before CATF released its newest report, the Colorado Independent published an interview with Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) executive director and chief medical officer Dr. Larry Wolk, who addressed anti-fracking activists’ health claims head-on. From the Colorado Independent:
“What the data shows is that from a registry standpoint — we maintain registries based on a number of health conditions, whether it’s cancer, birth defects, etc.— that the rates of these different health concerns or issues in some of these oil and gas-rich communities were no different from those that were not in oil and gas-rich communities.” (Emphasis added)
Dr. Wolk also points out that CDPHE data show that pollution in the region is down, while cases of asthma remain flat and instances of lung cancer have declined over the last 10 years. This happened during a rapid acceleration in oil and natural gas production along Colorado’s Front Range. Also from the Colorado Independent:
“Asthma has been flat and high for quite a while, although, because we have a state where people are coming and going a lot, it’s hard to look statewide. You can look at our website and see what that sort of prevalence has done in terms of trends. From a pollution standpoint, we have been relatively stable, and have actually seen some improvements in some types of pollution. Particulate matter is way down — we don’t have the brown cloud like we used to — and ozone we’ve been able to regulate to a level that certainly isn’t getting any worse, and, in some respects, is actually getting a little better.”
In Pennsylvania, a similar story unfolds. As EID has previously reported, Pennsylvania Department of Health data show a significant 26 percent reduction in inpatient asthma hospitalizations throughout the entire state between 2009 and 2013—which just so happens to be a time when shale development was prolific in the state. And as EID highlighted, the data shows that counties with shale development saw fewer hospitalizations than those where little or no fracking was taking place
Fact #3: Emissions have been falling thanks to fracking
CATF’s report blames emissions from oil and natural gas development for the health impacts Latino communities face. From CATF:
“Air pollution that affects many Latino communities is emitted from dozens of types of equipment and processes throughout the oil and gas sector, including wells, completion operations, storage tanks, compressors, and valves.”
But CATF simply ignores the fact that emissions have been steadily declining across the United States, thanks to natural gas. Public health and environmental regulators from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, CDPHE, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection have all found that hydraulic fracturing does not pose a credible threat to air quality or public health. In fact, Pennsylvania’s DEP found that over 500 million tons of emissions have actually been removed from the Commonwealth’s air thanks to the increased use of natural gas. For Pa. DEP Secretary, Chris Abruzzo, said:
“It is important to note that across-the-board emission reductions … can be attributed to the steady rise in the production and development of natural gas, the greater use of natural gas, lower allowable emissions limits, installation of control technology and the deactivation of certain sources.” (emphasis added)
Even former New York City Mayor Bloomberg has acknowledged the public health benefits of fracking, mentioning that thanks to the increased use of natural gas, New York has the cleanest air in over 50 years, which means fewer asthma problems across the board:
“Today, because of the significant improvements in air quality, the health department estimates that 800 lives will be saved each year and approximately 1,600 emergency department visits for asthma and 460 hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiovascular issues will be prevented every year. The City expects further improvements in air quality and the future health of all New Yorkers as buildings continue to convert to cleaner fuels over the next several years.”
And Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign says that natural gas usage reduces asthma attacks:
“This shift [to natural gas in electricity generation] has also yielded significant public health benefits, avoiding thousands of premature deaths and more than 100,000 asthma attacks in 2015 alone.”
Fact #4: A lack of peer-review and contributions from numerous anti-fracking activist organizations demonstrate more bias than actual science
As with other recent CATF reports, their latest study provides no indication that it underwent any sort of peer-review process. It should be seen for what it is: an advocacy piece put together by groups working to ban fracking.
One of the groups that CATF acknowledges for helping with the report is Earthworks – an aggressive activist group that has declared a “war on fracking” and whose Texas spokesperson compared fracking to sexual assault. The National Resources Defense Council, (NRDC) also acknowledged, has a long history of misrepresenting the facts when it comes to fracking.
CATF itself has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Energy Foundation, a prominent anti-fossil fuel organization that has poured millions into anti-fracking causes.
Meanwhile, co-author on the report, League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) has even partnered with well-known anti-fracking group Food & Water Watch in calling on California Governor Jerry Brown to “ban fracking now.”
A look at the claims laid out in CATF’s report makes it clear that the authors are far more interested in garnering headlines than looking at the science, which is likely why this project was not peer- reviewed. They ignored well-established data showing the benefits of shale development in their efforts to scare and mislead the public against oil and natural gas development.
Meanwhile, national Latino leaders like Ken Salazar, former Secretary of the Department of the Interior and current leader of Hillary Clinton’s White House transition team and former Denver Mayor and Secretary of Transportation under President Bill Clinton, Federico Peña support fracking, and the jobs, economic growth and environmental benefits that go along with increased domestic energy development.