Treasure Coast Newspapers (TCN), which includes the Fort Myers News-Press, recently published an editorial that called for a ban on fracking in the Sunshine State. But the editorial board’s rationale was based on a seriously flawed and inaccurate understanding of the practice and studies surrounding it.
The TCN editorial board made it clear that it supports recently proposed legislation that would not only ban fracking in Florida, but also be detrimental to the existing oil and gas industry, which has a proven record of success in the state. Let’s review how the editorial chooses to stoke fear in its readers when addressing issues about which they might be genuinely concerned.
The editorial says:
“A new report published in ‘Reviews on Environmental Health’ found pollutants released during fracking could pose a health risk to infants and children.”
While we are all concerned about the health of infants and children (and adults), the editorial doesn’t mention that this report was a highly selective literature review that failed to prove causation. The report merely identified chemicals associated with oil and gas development — many of which can also be found in common household items — with no context regarding dose or reasonable exposure pathways, two essential components of any honest discussion about potential health impacts. Furthermore, the report’s authors (and the editor of the journal it appeared in) all have direct ties to some pretty big players that blatantly oppose fracking — Center for Environmental Health – which works actively to“[i]mpose moratoriums or bans that delay fracking,”; Physicians for Social Responsibility – which is funded by the anti-fracking Park Foundation and has a stated goal of banning fracking; Concerned Health Professionals of New York – which sent out multiple letters to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo demanding a moratorium on fracking; and Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE) – a group founded by “ban fracking” activist Anthony Ingraffea that has produced similar “research” targeting children.
As EID recently explained, this report is part of a deliberate media strategy targeting children that was concocted by the leader of a group that one of the report’s authors happens to be a part of. The end goal of the media strategy is to drive regulations aimed at curtailing oil and gas development by generating headlines via emotional arguments — not by making substantive contributions to the scientific debate. And while the report itself did not generate many headlines, news outlets like TCN apparently still considered it legitimate science.
In light of these ties, the report’s so-called “finding” is not surprising. The authors even admitted their selection bias, noting that they “did not include a formal quality assessment of the literature.”
Notably, the report included a 2012 study on elevated benzene emissions from oil and gas operations that was thoroughly debunked by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) for a variety of flaws, including the fact that the study failed to account for upwind emissions from a major interstate just one mile away.
Another 2015 study’s original findings made the cut for the literature review with no mention that it was later retracted, and then re-released with completely different findings that showed emissions are well below the level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says would be harmful to public health. Further, not only were the updated findings absent from the literature review, but so was the CDPHE’s 2017 health assessment that collected over 10,000 air samples in parts of Colorado with “substantial” oil and gas operations, and found “low risk of harmful health effects from combined exposure to all substances during oil and gas development.”
As if that’s not enough reason to disregard this report’s usefulness in advancing a legitimate scientific discussion in Florida or elsewhere, the authors of this report even conceded that, “Currently, only a small number of studies document a causal relationship between pollution created by unconventional oil and gas operations and undesirable health outcomes.” If any studies of that nature exist – and that’s a big “if” considering that environmental research group Resources For the Future’s recent review of the 32 most prominent studies of health impacts from fracking found “the literature does not provide strong evidence regarding specific health impacts” – they weren’t included in the report referenced by TCN.
The editorial gets this one very wrong, claiming that:
“Scientists have established a strong link between fracking and earthquakes in Texas.”
This is simply not true. Most earthquakes in Texas are natural, and those that are induced have been associated with disposal wells, not fracking.
In June, The Academy of Medicine, Engineering and Science of Texas (TAMEST) released its two-year study analyzing the overall impacts oil and gas development has had on Texas. In addition to identifying positive impacts the industry has had in the state, it also noted areas of concern, including seismicity.
TAMEST found that “the vast majority of earthquakes are tectonic – due to natural stresses” and that those earthquakes that are potentially induced and felt at the surface “have been associated with fluid disposal in Class II disposal wells, not with the hydraulic fracturing process.” It also identified that Texas is leading the way in research surrounding induced seismicity, explaining:
“Government, industry, and academic representatives from Texas have all been active participants in these studies, putting Texas on the forefront of exploring, assessing, and mitigating the relationships between induced seismicity and oil and gas operations.” (pg. 45)
That’s because, contrary to the TCN claim, as the United States Geological Survey (USGS) has explained on numerous occasions, “fracking is NOT causing most of the induced earthquakes” and “not all wastewater injection wells induce earthquakes.” That includes in Texas.
The TCN editorial claims:
“The Sunshine State has a high water table and the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing — several of which are known carcinogens — could contaminate water supplies.”
There is no mention that more than 25 studies have concluded fracking does not pose a major risk of groundwater pollution and that this fear is misplaced.
The list of these studies includes three from 2017 alone – the TAMEST report, a report led by the USGS, and a report led by researchers from Duke University (funded by the National Resources Defense Council) – and the EPA’s landmark study that the editorial mentions. Following the EPA study’s release in 2016, former EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Thomas Burke told CBS This Morning that “the overall incidence of impacts is low,” confirming the regulatory agency did not reverse course on its 2015 draft findings that there was no evidence of “widespread, systemic impacts” from fracking.
Furthermore, following CDPHE’s release of its health assessment that found that “the risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living [near] oil and gas operations,” and that “results from exposure and health effect studies do not indicate the need for immediate public health action,” the agency’s head of environmental epidemiology Dr. Mike Van Dyke explained why the level of exposure is key, not just the fact that a substance may or may not be present in a solution,
“Each can be a health concern at some level of exposure.”
This is especially true because of the number of substances that CDPHE examined that are also emitted by sources other than oil and natural gas development – including vehicle traffic and consumer products such as nail polish, detergents, sealants, aerosol antiperspirants and deodorants. Dr. Van Dyke concluded,
“What’s important in terms of exposure to these hazardous substances is how much you’re exposed to.”
The editorial states,
“Fracking also requires huge volumes of water for each well, and water is a precious commodity in our state.”
Actually, technological innovation has decreased the amount of freshwater used for fracking, and overall water use for the process accounts for less than one percent of total U.S. water use, according to 2015 studies led by Duke University and the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
The amount of water used to hydraulically fracture a well differs across oil and natural gas basins and thanks to improved technology it takes less and less freshwater. That’s because operators in places like Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale and Texas’ Barnett Shale are recycling flowback and production fluid to be reused in future operations, and even using acid mine drainage or other brackish water to complete wells.
So yes, as the name implies, hydraulic fracturing does use water, but not in any volume that should scare Floridians.
For a media outlet to make the bold recommendation to “Ban fracking in Florida,” as TCN did – one would hope the editors would have at least done the research to back up the claims behind their recommendation. Unfortunately, they did not do this and chose to scare their readers using the debunked or exaggerated claims of anti-industry activists. While fracking is not currently used in Florida, the language of the proposed ban is so broad that it would impact existing, productive oil and gas development in the state. Floridians deserve to know the facts when one of the state’s successful industries is threatened.