How Anti-Fracking Activists Deny Science: Public Health

In Part III of our multi-part series exploring how anti-fracking activists sow the seeds of doubt on the safety of shale development (see also Part I and Part II), we look at the ongoing debate over public health.

Anti-fracking groups are increasingly focused on public health issues, specifically those that may or may not be related to shale development. Primarily based on air emissions, the “health issue” has also become incredibly emotional, with terms like “cancer” being tossed about recklessly — and often with no evidence to support them. Activists have instilled so much fear in certain segments of the public that policymakers have been utterly crippled. New York’s moratorium on high-volume hydraulic fracturing, for example, has been repeatedly extended until a series of state-mandated “public health” assessments are completed.

So, what’s the evidence provided to support these allegedly high public health risks? Chief among them is a study from the Colorado School of Public Health, which purported to draw a link between “serious health impacts” and proximity to oil and gas wells. The study suffered from significant flaws, including an inflation of exposure times by a shocking 900 percent, as well as the use of data that were embarrassingly out of date (and not reflective of the current operating environment). The authors also claimed to have been working closely with local environmental officials in Garfield County, Colo., who publicly denied any such cooperation.

The other “studies” are often even more dubious. For example, the “Bucket Brigade” uses buckets lined with plastic bags (seriously) to collect air samples around well pads, and then uses those “findings” to assess air contaminant risks. In one high profile example, the Bucket Brigade made alarmist claims about the air quality near an elementary school in Durango, Colo., but those allegations were debunked by state health officials and the U.S. EPA.

It was later found that Denny Larson, executive director of the Bucket Brigade’s parent organization, Global Community Monitor, had given the following advice in a “campaign handbook” for activists:

“The Bucket Brigade is not a scientific experiment. Our focus is on organizing. We use science, but only in the service of organizing.”

(This parallels what one of the founders of the Center for Biological Diversity, another major anti-fracking group, said just a few years ago. Kieran Suckling, currently the executive director of CBD, said his explicit decision not to hire scientists was “key to our success,” adding that the “core talent of a successful environmental activist is not science and law. It’s campaigning instinct.”)

After its Durango debacle, the Bucket Brigade set up shop in another town – Erie, Colo. – to join a separate activist misinformation campaign about air quality. But, as before, the effort was discredited by a series of air quality reports commissioned by the town. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) also installed air quality monitors near a well site that had come under intense criticism from the activists. CDPHE concluded:

“No significant concentrations were recorded that could be directly attributed to well completion operations at this well pad.”

The CDPHE monitors also checked the background levels of benzene, which had featured prominently in the talking points activists had used to frighten their neighbors. What did the data show?

“The monitored concentrations of benzene, one of the major risks driving chemicals, are well within acceptable limits to protect public health, as determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”

Gee, who to believe: anti-fracking activists who collected air samples with plastic bags, or technical experts who gathered data and arrived at their conclusions using legitimate scientific processes?

Official regulatory investigations in other parts of the country have come to similar conclusions. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality conducted months of testing in the Barnett Shale area, and its samples showed “no levels of concern for any chemicals.” TCEQ added that “there are no immediate health concerns from air quality in the area.”

In Pennsylvania, air monitoring from the state Department of Environmental Protection in the northeast portion of the state “did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” A similar report for southwestern Pennsylvania came to the same conclusion.

Meanwhile, some environmental groups have acknowledged that the increased use of natural gas actually brings health benefits by reducing local air pollution. The Breakthrough Institute, an Oakland-based environmental think tank, recently observed that “new builds in gas-fired power plants and the associated surge in fracking have dramatically reduced emissions across Pennsylvania.”

Even the Sierra Club admitted that “human health impacts should be greatly reduced” as a result of a switch to natural gas at a Wisconsin power plant.

In its annual “State of the Air” report, the American Lung Association gave high marks to eight North Dakota counties, including several that are among the state leaders in oil production from the Bakken Shale (North Dakota is currently the second largest oil producing state in the country, behind only Texas). To be fair, ALA noted that its methodology “may not reflect” all of the recent growth in shale oil production. But if development were even half as bad as opponents have claimed, then even limited studies would indicate problems; instead, some of North Dakota’s biggest oil producing counties received “A” grades from ALA.

The Obama administration has similarly embraced the consensus on clean-burning natural gas. The U.S. EPA says natural gas “plays a key role in our nation’s clean energy future.” President Obama said in his 2013 State of the Union address that “the natural gas boom has led to cleaner power and greater energy independence.” In a major climate speech this past June, the President added:

“[S]ometimes there are disputes about natural gas, but let me say this:  We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions.”

Other studies have shown that hydraulic fracturing fluids, when properly handled, are also not a major health risk. Owing to geological barriers and other natural processes, researchers recently found that such fluids “are not expected to pose an adverse risk to human health.”

To be sure, developing natural gas from shale is not without risk. There have been incidents, and there is always room for improvement. But if the goal is to find an absolutely risk-free energy source, then we will never be able to produce any form of energy whatsoever. “Risk-free energy” does not exist, nor will it ever.

The question should be whether risks can be effectively managed, and whether the attendant benefits of natural gas outweigh those risks. The answer to both is unequivocally yes. Regarding the risks of shale development, current Secretary for the U.S. Department of Energy Ernest Moniz recently said: “All of these are manageable.”

That’s good news, because the growing consensus about natural gas use is that it brings significant health benefits – a fact that opponents, for some reason, just cannot bring themselves to accept.


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