Debunked Research is Used Yet Again to Attack Oil and Natural Gas Production

A recent Corpus Christi Caller-Times opinion column begins with an emphasis on a claimed lack of “Science. Evidence. Facts.” in policymaking decisions surrounding fracking. And yet, the notable absence of these very things in the author’s claims demonstrates just how out-of-touch with reality the piece’s calls for a ban on fracking and a halt to using “fracked gas” actually are.

The author – Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Director of Health and Environment Barbara Gottlieb – bases her claims on an annual compendium of research her group releases in conjunction with Concerned Health Professionals of New York.

Here are five facts to keep in mind about the “Keep It In the Ground” agenda behind PSR and CHPNY and the claims the two groups make:

Fact #1: The compendium is an annual repacking of the same research from groups with a clear anti-fracking agenda.

Both PSR and CHPNY are pretty transparent in their agendas. In addition to the previous calls for a fracking ban similar to those in the Corpus Christi column, PSR notes on its website that the group is “working in multiple ways to ‘give natural gas a black eye.’”

Similarly, CHPNY has been particularly active in working to prevent shale development and new pipelines in New York. Compendium author and CHPNY member Sandra Steingraber, who co-founded New Yorkers Against Fracking and has likened oil and gas workers to “prostitutes,” also peer-reviewed at least one of the studies included in the compendium. Despite Steingraber’s claims of objectivity, in a piece entitled, “How We Banned Fracking in New York” she exclaimed,

“We are the maker of this story that has been shaped by our unceasing, unrelenting efforts—all of which mattered and made a difference […] Against fracking infrastructure, we will prevail. I am playing to win.”

These groups aren’t introducing any new research in the compendium, rather just highlighting any article or study that has ever claimed to link fracking to health impacts in what a leader of the groups says is a “go-to source for activists, health professionals, and others seeking to understand fracking.” This includes a multitude of studies that have been criticized by the health community and state health agencies, like the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Fact #2: PSR inaccurately cites flawed epidemiological research as definitive causal evidence.  

In her case against fracking, Gottlieb cites a 2018 study on infant birth weight that claimed mothers living within 2.5 miles of a well site had increased rates of low birth weight. But she never mentions that the study met significant criticism when it was first released as a working paper without peer review in 2012.

Author Elaine Hill, a Cornell University graduate student at the time, allowed New Yorkers Against Fracking to hire a PR firm to push the study. After receiving criticism from the scientific community for publicizing her results at an anti-fracking forum before they had been properly reviewed, she backtracked on her statements that her findings were “robust” and indicated that “future generations may be seriously harmed”.  This is notably the same language included in the 2018 version of this same research that claims “robust” findings that “suggest that shale gas development poses significant risks to human health.”

Like most of the studies within the PSR and CHPNY compendium, Hill’s research does not include actual measurements of air and water quality to determine if pathways for exposure even exist. This limitation in these studies is something even activist Seth Shonkoff – who is thanked within the compendium – has acknowledged:

“[M]easurements of hazardous air pollutant concentrations near operational sites have generally failed to capture levels above standard health benchmarks; yet, the majority of studies continue to find poor health outcomes increasing as distance from these operations decreases.” (emphasis added)

Instead Hill relies on birth certificate data for her research – a common practice in similar studies that has met heavy criticism. As the Magee-Womens Research Institute and Foundation explained following a similar study:

Birth certificates do not record every pregnancy outcome. Therefore the researchers were able to evaluate only a limited number of outcomes…”  (emphasis added)

Fact #3: A quick check of demographics in some of the most heavily developed U.S. counties shows they are not predominantly African American.

Gottlieb also attempts to make a case for environmental injustice claiming that people who live “near drilling and fracking operations” in Colorado, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas are “disproportionately” minorities, “especially African Americans.”

A quick review of census data for the counties with the most oil and natural gas development in these states reveals that’s far from accurate. For instance, in Weld County, Colo., where roughly 88 percent of the state’s oil and 36 percent of its natural gas is produced, 92.6 percent of the population is Caucasian. Similarly:

Of these states, only Midland and Webb counties in Texas have significant minority populations that identify as Hispanic or Latino.

Fact #4: Natural gas is helping to decrease U.S. emissions.

Gottlieb claims, “We all face harm from fracking’s impact on the climate,” disregarding an array of scientific consensus that the increased use of natural gas as a result of fracking is helping the United States to lead the world in emissions reductions.

Her issue with methane emissions in particular is in contrast to recent data. Methane emissions from onshore U.S. oil and natural gas production fell 24 percent, while oil and natural gas production rose 65 percent and 19 percent, respectively, from 2011 to 2017, according to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Energy Information Administration. And in the nation’s two largest-producing regions, emissions are falling at significant rates. Over this time period, Appalachian Basin emissions intensity fell by 82 percent while production increased by 379 percent, and the Permian Basin likewise saw a decline of 57 percent paired with a production increase of 125 percent.

Further, companies are making it a top priority to reduce emissions and their environmental footprints, and having real success in doing so. In fact, the 65 companies that are voluntarily participating in the Environmental Partnership found methane leakage rates across their operations to be only 0.16 percent in 2018 – 10 times lower than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates, according to the group’s annual report. Ninety-nine percent of these methane leaks were detected and repaired within 60 days.

Fact #5: Stopping shale development would be detrimental to our economy with no clear environmental benefits.

The entire point of Gottlieb’s piece is that “the logical conclusion is that, for health, justice, and a livable world, the time to stop using fracked gas is now.” But despite her assertions, that move is completely illogical.

This point was repeatedly made at a recent congressional hearing where a former deputy Interior secretary in the Clinton and Obama administrations explained:

“It’s impractical and inappropriate to stop oil and gas drilling on our public lands and federal waters right now.”

And that’s just public lands. The impacts to a ban on all fracking would be even more detrimental and would “not make any meaningful impact on climate change,” according to Nicolas Loris of the Heritage Foundation.

Banning fracking and blocking key infrastructure projects aimed at bringing natural gas to communities does have real consequences. PSR and CHPNY have been actively engaged in doing both in New York and New England – a move that has resulted in  consumers there paying some of the highest prices in the country for natural gas and electricity because of a lack of capacity in pipeline infrastructure. As a recent Manhattan Institute report explains:

“According to EIA, it costs about $1,520 per year to heat a home in the Northeast with heating oil. Heating that same home with natural gas costs about $752. Restrictions on new gas supplies mean that consumers in the region will have no choice but to continue using more expensive heating oil.”

In fact, as the report also details, blocking pipelines can actually result in higher emissions:

“Switching from heating oil to natural gas helps reduce traditional air pollutants like sulfur dioxide. It also reduces carbon-dioxide emissions by about 27%. … But insufficient flows of natural gas due to inadequate pipeline capacity mean higher emissions.”


PSR and CHPNY have a clear agenda – one they didn’t shy away from in the recent Corpus Christi opinion piece – that is far-removed from science, evidence and facts. The reality is that when the science, evidence and facts are all laid out, it’s evident that oil and natural gas are being developed in a way that is protective of public health and the environment.

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