*UPDATE* Cornell Veterinarians Go Into “Beast Mode” on Shale

UPDATE (4/6/2012, 1:15pm ET): Some intrepid research by the EID team has uncovered a meaningful critique of the Bamberger-Oswald paper, and the source is no slouch: Dr. Ian Rae, a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia and a Co-chair of the Chemicals Technical Options Committee for the United Nations Environment Programme, says the paper is “an advocacy piece” that suffers from poor referencing, and the authors themselves “cannot be regarded as experts” in the field in which they are commenting. Rae’s full comments about the paper can be found here, but we’ve excerpted the most significant items below:

  • “It certainly does not qualify as a scientific paper but is, rather, an advocacy piece that does not involve deep…analysis of the data gathered to support its case.”
  • “The data in Table 2 are incomplete in that no dates or places are provided, and no references to other commentary on the events it reports, so it’s hard to assess the weight of the evidence. Surely there were reports to or by regulatory agencies. It could be that this is old evidence and that note has been taken of the hazards and appropriate regulations put in place to mitigate them. We just don’t know.”
  • “Contributions to the journal are said to be refereed, but the refereeing process evidently was not very stringent. For example, better refereeing would have forced the authors to provide the details I identified above as missing from their compilation. As well, it might also have curtailed some of the less-well supported statements and asked for more recent references to the scientific basis for expressions of concern that material dated to the 1960s and 1970s.”
  • “As far as I can see, neither [Bamberger nor Oswald] has a track record of investigation in environmental studies. This does not mean they are wrong to sound a note of concern, but it does mean that they cannot be regarded as experts in the field with broad experience and attainments.”
  • “I have not had time to read the articles in recent issues of the journal, but the titles show that they are advocacy pieces dealing with issues that are matters of concern, and for that reason are also extensively covered by other journals.”

Original post from January 11, 2012

When it comes to the issue of responsibly developing oil and natural gas resources from shale, we’ve seen a lot of wacky things come out of Ithaca, New York over the past couple years.

The primary recipient of millions of dollars every year of anti-shale advocacy provided by the Park Foundation (also based in Ithaca), Cornell University has become to anti-energy activists what “Linebacker U” was once to Penn State — with the debunked-ad-nauseum Howarth paper on shale emissions serving as the movement’s main playbook. Ithaca also happens to be the place from which outlets like the New York Times pull “data” on mineral leasing, notwithstanding the fact that no actual Marcellus development even takes place there.

So it was no surprise when a pair of veterinarians associated with Cornell wrote an article attacking shale development for its supposed link to animal health impacts. (One of the authors, Robert Oswald is a professor at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine; the other, Michelle Bamberger, received her doctorate from Cornell.)

Now, needless to say, we don’t have any bones to pick with veterinarians, and in fact the scientific research they provide on a daily basis is without question critical to us better understanding the natural world (plus, we love dogs). But the authors here did not produce a scientific assessment, a fact they freely admit in their article. Instead, Oswald and Bamberger chose to highlight a handful of personal testimonials that cannot be independently assessed or verified because they decided to keep all relevant details anonymous. Thus, we’re left with a 27-page unscientific article making bold assertions about oil and gas development, without a single shred of data or independent corroboration to back any of it up.

While the article contains many flaws, we’ve highlighted a few of the key problems below, all of which should raise serious doubts about the “scientific” nature of this particular article.

  • Right off the bat, the paper leads with a philosophical quote from Sandra Steingraber, who has described hydraulic fracturing as “the tornado on the horizon” that will destroy people’s ability to do everything, from local gardening to even riding a bicycle (Orion Magazine, Sept./Oct. 2010). Ms. Steingraber has also called for an end to all fossil fuels to “avoid human calamity.” With respect to shale development, Ms. Steingraber has stated: “If we mitigate fracking to kill fewer people, we’re still killing people” (The Vindicator, Jan. 10, 2012).
  • The authors assert that developing natural gas from shale is “moving forward without benefit of carefully controlled studies of its impact on public health” (p. 52). Aside from the fact that the authors readily admit in the paper that their own conclusions are not the result of controlled experiments, their claim is simply not true. For example, a study from earlier this year by the city of Fort Worth, TX, concluded there were “no significant health risks” from nearby shale development (July 2011).
  • A separate scientific assessment of the Barnett Shale in north Texas concluded: “[E]ven as natural gas development expanded significantly in the area over the past several years, key indicators of health improved across every major category during those times” (Oct. 19, 2011). The Barnett Shale is one of the most productive shale fields in the United States, with more than 15,000 producing wells.
  • Instead of seeking out the answer to a legitimate question – what, if any, are the health impacts of developing natural gas from shale? – the authors simply accuse the industry of taking a position “similar to the tobacco industry that for many years rejected the link between smoking and cancer” (p. 52). The report goes on to suggest that “epidemiologic studies [that] linked smoking to human health impacts…could be used to assess the health impacts of gas drilling operations on human beings” (p. 53). It seems the authors have already made up their minds.
  • The authors clearly admit that the study is not sound science: “This study is not an epidemiologic analysis of the health effects of gas drilling, which could proceed to some extent without knowledge of the details of the complex mixtures of toxicants involved. It is also not a study of the health impacts of specific chemical exposures related to gas drilling” (p. 53).
  • Later in the article the authors further concede: “By the standards of a controlled experiment, this is an imperfect study, as one variable could not be changed while holding all others constant” (p. 55). Instead, the article is merely a compilation of unsourced and unverifiable case studies.
  • The report conceals names and locations, which means independent review of the claims and parties involved cannot be completed; statements from the researchers about their findings are simply asserted as fact. Ironically, much of the paper is committed to critiquing the industry for not disclosing enough information to independently verify data.
  • Despite its lack of scientific bent, the authors nonetheless conclude definitively that their assessment “strongly implicates exposure to gas drilling operations in serious health effects on humans, companion animals, livestock, horses, and wildlife.” They go further and, without any scientific evidence, state that “a ban on shale gas drilling is essential for the protection of public health” (p. 72).

Calling for a ban on responsible oil and gas development without any scientific basis? Wait, we’ve heard this one before…

Again, those interested in the supposed health impacts of developing natural gas from shale should reference this assessment from October, in which two public health professionals studied conditions in the Barnett shale region of north Texas. Their conclusion? Even though the area has been one of the highest gas producing regions of the country, “key indicators of health improved across every major category.” That followed a study from last summer for the city of Fort Worth which “did not reveal any significant health threats” from shale development.


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