Desperation Tactics: Activists Search for ‘Ban Fracking’ Evidence in China and Iran
Susan Nagel, co-author of a paper that uses health impacts from China, Iran and other countries to make alarmist claims about oil and gas development in the United States, praises the anti-industry film Gasland at a promotional event for her research.
A compilation of papers masquerading as a new report suggests health impacts from oil and gas development but does not actually present any new evidence to support that charge.
The report, released today in Reviews on Environmental Health, contains no original research and is essentially a book report on what other studies have previously claimed. But most of those studies aren’t actually about oil and gas development. In fact, the authors’ case is so weak that they have to draw on health impact studies from completely unrelated industries such as lead smelting and synthetic leather manufacturing, and from studies about factory workers in other countries, including China and Iran.
The only so-called evidence tying health impacts to oil and gas development comes from papers written by anti-energy activists, or by researchers whose work has been roundly debunked by public health officials.
Even worse, many of the authors of the literature review released today have misrepresented themselves as independent researchers, when in fact they are active opponents of oil and gas development. Two of the authors are associated with an organization called the Center for Environmental Health, which works to “[i]mpose moratoriums or bans that delay fracking.” One in particular, Dr. Susan Bushkin-Bedient, works closely with “ban fracking” activists on the East Coast and has said, “it’s frightening to know that this is allowed to go on anywhere in the United States and I hope that it never happens in New York.”
Meanwhile, the University of Missouri’s Susan Nagel – whose grant application to research this subject was rejected by the National Institutes of Health – has praised the factually-incorrect and anti-industry movie Gasland as “educational” with “a lot of good information.” She even sought funding from the film’s director Josh Fox and other “ban fracking” activists, including actor Mark Ruffalo and performance artist Yoko Ono.
Different countries, different industries
When the authors failed to find evidence of widespread chemical exposure due to hydraulic fracturing, they resorted to using more than 30 studies from across the globe, and several from developing countries, to make their case.
For instance, the authors would have their readers believe that the experience of those working or living in close proximity to domestic oil and gas operations is comparable to a study which, according to the NIH, was “carried out in a pharmaceutical factory located in the suburb of Tehran in 2010.” They also appear to claim that findings from a study of men working in a synthetic leather factory in Taiwan are applicable to those who work in the heavily-regulated oil and gas industry here in the United States. Yet another study, based in Athens, Greece, looked at birth statistics of women who smoked during pregnancy.
Tianjin, China. Source: Open.Salon.Com
Perhaps even more shocking is the inclusion of a study tracking the sperm count of male factory workers in Tianjin, China, which one reporter described as “China’s most polluted city”:
“At times the air is so thick with sulfuric gases and coal dust in the winter months that locals dare not go outside without an air filter face masks.”
One would be hard-pressed to find here in the United States conditions remotely similar to those described above. Yet that did not stop the authors from including this study in their review. It is hard not to wonder about the motivations of researchers who would use the horrific conditions of Tianjin to engage in fear mongering over oil and gas development in the U.S.
But a closer review of the footnotes shows the authors didn’t stop at using horror stories from other countries to scare the public about oil and gas development. Unable to point to any reliable evidence of health impacts from routine oil and gas operations, the authors also pulled in research on health impacts from completely unrelated industries.
Just exactly how different are these industries from oil and gas development? Here are all the ones we could identify: Lead smelting, shipyard painting, semiconductor assembly, meat packing, commercial printing, and the manufacturing of pharmaceuticals, synthetic leather, shoes, paper bags, sandpaper, and ice-cream.
By dragging oil and gas development into a discussion about the health impacts of whole other industries (and irresponsible yet irrelevant personal behaviors, like mothers smoking while pregnant), the researchers were clearly grasping at straws to indict the oil and gas industry. Without these examples to selectively quote and paraphrase, their paper would have very little left.
Discredited research from other anti-energy campaigners
Early in the paper, the authors make an assertion about “unconventional oil and gas operations” (UOG) that’s the foundation for almost everything else claimed in the paper:
“UOG operations release large amounts of reproductive, immunological, and neurological toxicants, carcinogens as well as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) into the environment that may negatively affect human health … Many of these same reproductive health impacts have also been observed in companion and farm animals living in intensively drilled areas in the United States.”
The sources cited to support these claims are a report from Theo Colborn and another from Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald. If those names seem familiar, it’s because the authors have been debunked in this space before. Let’s take a look at their claims.
Colborn is the head of a group called The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) in Paonia, Colo. She’s also one of the stars of Josh Fox’s anti-industry film Gasland. Colborn and TEDX have been publicly outspoken in their distaste for the oil and gas industry. From their website:
“[T]he gas industry is steamrolling over vast land segments in the West. … From the air it appears as a spreading, cancer-like network…”
Colborn has authored several studies that claim scary things about potential health impacts of oil and gas development. A study similar to the one cited by this report (available here) made the determination that “human and environmental health impacts … should be examined further given that the natural gas industry is now operating in close proximity to human residences and public lands.”
That study claims that natural gas wells are responsible for dangerous levels of chemicals found in air quality samples. But then it makes the following concession:
“The chemicals reported in this exploratory study cannot, however, be causally connected to natural gas operations.” p. 8
By the authors’ own admission, the TEDX study failed to identify a link between natural gas operations and air quality, but that didn’t stop them from implying exactly the opposite. Sound familiar?
Today’s report also relied heavily on a 2012 study by Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald of Cornell University. In fact, a news article covering the study released today wrote:
“In an interview, Bushkin-Bedient said the group found the work by two other researchers, veterinarian Michelle Bamberger and scientist Robert Oswald, particularly informative.”
As with the TEDX study cited above, Bamberger and Oswald attempted to establish detrimental health effects of hydraulic fracturing, this time on animals. And, much like the TEDX study, they failed to find any conclusive links and were forced to concede, “By the standards of a controlled experiment, this is an imperfect study…”
Because they lacked data, the duo used, for evidence, anonymous personal testimonials that cannot be independently assessed or verified. Nevertheless, they make bold assertions about oil and gas development left and right, without offering any substantiating data or independent corroboration to back up their theories.
For these reasons, 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, shot their paper down:
“It certainly does not qualify as a scientific paper but is, rather, an advocacy piece … [and the authors] cannot be regarded as experts in the field with broad experience and attainments.”
In case there’s any doubt, Oswald and Bamberger are regular fixtures in the “ban fracking” campaign out of Ithaca, N.Y. For example:
“Robert Oswald of the Concerned Citizens of Ulysses, a group that helped collect some 1,000 signatures supporting a fracking ban, said he felt ‘fantastic.’
‘We had to do it,’ he said of the ban.”
The pair even authored a book together that claims, “fracking poses a dire threat to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and even our food supply.”
Activists upon activists
Elsewhere in the so-called research paper published today, one can see the work of the go-to researchers for anti-energy activists: Anthony Ingraffea and Robert Howarth. EID has debunked this duo’s research time and time and time again, but we aren’t the only ones skeptical of their work. One study cited by the authors of today’s paper relied on data so shaky, Howarth himself was wary of defending it in a presentation to colleagues:
“They are limited data. These are not published data. These are things teased apart out of PowerPoint presentations here and there. So rather than try to extrapolate based on any complicated formula, we’ve ended up simply taking the mean of those values.”
Today’s report also leans heavily on a team of researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH), whose work is also routinely cited by anti-energy activists across the country. Yet, the report fails to mention that the methods and conclusions of this team of CSPH researchers have been discredited, disavowed and ripped apart by public health officials with the State of Colorado. In fact, Dr. Larry Wolk, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Chief Medical Officer and Executive Director said in a statement to the media:
“[A] reader of the study could easily be misled to become overly concerned.”
Far from a complete list, these are only some of the more prominent examples of previously discredited studies being dusted off for the purposes of this paper. Further examples of debunked sources the authors pulled from can be seen here, here, here, here, here, here and here.
At the end of the report, there’s a section called “Disclosure.” Here’s what it says:
“The authors have no relevant financial relationships and no conflicts of interest.”
No conflict of interest? What a wildly inaccurate claim.
Author Sheila Bushkin-Bedient is a member of the Concerned Health Professionals of New York, which sent out multiple letters to Governor Cuomo demanding a moratorium on fracking. The Concerned Health Professionals of New York also has a penchant for using the track record of completely unrelated industries to attack oil and gas development:
“The disingenuous effort on the part of the gas industry to create a false debate and so distract attention from the evidence for harm is part of a sophisticated, coordinated propaganda strategy. In this, the gas industry has taken a page out of the playbook of the lead paint and tobacco industries of years ago when they cast aspersions on public health research findings even as Americans suffered rising rates of lead poisoning and lung cancer. Governor Cuomo should not fall for cigarette science.”
Dr. Bushkin-Bedient also serves on the Continuing Medical Education (CME) committee for Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy – a group led by “ban fracking” activist Anthony Ingraffea. But most tellingly, Dr. Bushkin-Bedient spoke at a “PA Harmed by Fracking” press conference in Albany in January 2013. It was hosted by the anti-energy group Frack Action to promote a TV ad, paid for by Food & Water Watch, that implored “Learn from Pennsylvania. Ban fracking.” Bushkin-Bedient told the audience:
“It’s frightening to know that this is allowed to go on anywhere in the United States and I hope that it never happens in New York state.”
Susan Nagel is a researcher at the University of Missouri with some pretty strong – and negative – opinions about the oil and natural gas industry and how it’s regulated. At an event to promote her work, she was asked why hydraulic fracturing is allowed to continue when it’s “bad.” She replied: “It makes a whole lot of money.”
Recently, without evidence, Nagel tried to blame oil and gas development for infant mortality rates in eastern Utah, saying: “I suspect it is real — that there is a relationship.” The claim was all the more shocking because Nagel’s research into endocrine disrupting chemicals was roundly criticized by Colorado health officials.
When she blasted out a press release suggesting links between hydraulic fracturing and “cancer, birth defects and infertility,” the Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department Public Health and Environment fired back with a series of criticisms. Her work included geological assumptions that were “not factually or scientifically valid;” the paper ignored other sources of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as septic tanks; and the CDPHE questioned her comparison of water samples from Western Colorado to water samples almost 1,000 miles away near Columbia, Mo., where Nagel is based. State health officials also concluded, “there is no indication in the study that any of the sample sites are currently used for drinking water.”
It’s no surprise to learn that after this episode, Nagel was rejected by the National Institutes of Health when she sought funding to continue her research. As she explained to her college-town paper, “it was not good enough to be funded, and they suggested more preliminary data.” Faced with rejection from the NIH, Nagel decided instead to start a crowdfunding campaign, complete with a promotional video.
But this method of funding has caught the attention of another federal research institution, the National Science Foundation, and not in a good way. As NPR recently noted in a news story about the NSF’s concerns:
“[T]hese projects tend to skip one key step. When the federal government gives out a grant, panels of experts peer-review each application. It’s not really like that when the crowd decides on a proposal.”
In the same story, a representative of the NSF underscored the problem with crowdfunded research:
“You really need an expert to be able to look at that and say well, this really is new and interesting or in fact, this is like something that’s already been done.”
But perhaps what is most interesting is who Nagel sought funding from during her online campaign: Josh Fox, the director of the anti-industry film Gasland, and celebrity “ban fracking” activists Mark Ruffalo and Yoko Ono. Frankly, researchers looking into the oil and gas industry cannot possibly be taken seriously if they are asking the likes of Fox, Ruffalo and Ono for money. These and other “ban fracking” activists are not looking to improve the way the industry does business. The only thing they want is to eliminate the oil and gas industry.
The next two authors, Ellen Webb and Amanda Cheng, are listed as researchers for the Center for Environmental Health (CEH). Energy in Depth looked into CEH yesterday, and found that CEH works actively to “[i]mpose moratoriums or bans that delay fracking.” CEH has also partnered with Food & Water Watch, the Center for Biological Diversity and Bill McKibben’s 350.org, to demand that the Obama administration “put a halt to hydraulic fracturing.”
The organization’s social media accounts show pictures of anti-fracking rallies and encourage followers to create memes to support a “Don’t Frack My Mom” campaign.
The report was published in a journal called Reviews on Environmental Health. While we support the peer-review process, we can’t help but question the integrity and impartiality of a journal whose editor-in-chief, David Carpenter, distrusts seemingly safe food and technology like wifi, Scottish salmon, and sushi. He also authored a study that claimed dangers from “powerlines, electrical wiring, appliances and hand-held devices; and from wireless technologies (cell and cordless phones, cell towers, ‘smart meters’, WI-FI, wireless laptops, wireless routers, baby monitors, and other electronic devices).”
That study was quickly censured by a professor of bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania, who called it “an egregiously slanted review of health and biological effects of electromagnetic fields.” Carpenter’s earlier work on the subject has also been dismissed by international technology experts in countries such as Australia and The Netherlands.
All in all, this compilation reads like a group of anti-energy activists writing a book report on research papers done by other anti-industry activists, published in a journal whose editor-in-chief is also an opponent of oil and gas development. It’s nothing more than a highly selective literature review, containing no original research, and carefully written to paint the scariest possible picture of oil and gas development.