Jumping the Gun: How the Media Rushes to Promote Fracking Critics
This past January, researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH) released a study attempting to link birth defects and fetal abnormalities to shale gas development. “What we found was that the risk of congenital heart defects (CHD) increased with greater density of gas wells – with mothers living in the highest-density areas at greatest risk,” lead researcher Lisa McKenzie told Al Jazeera. Similar to a previous study released by the same research team, the findings were immediately called into question. Dr. Larry Wolk, a former Colorado pediatrician of the year and current head of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), recommended that pregnant mothers not rely on McKenzie’s research, as “many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored in this study.”
Despite the pushback from CDPHE, which even disavowed the way its birth records were used by the CSPH researchers, headlines proliferated about the alleged risk fracking poses to young children. “Babies near gas wells more likely to have birth defects,” read one such headline from Environmental Health News. The Huffington Post used its headline to link natural gas development with ill-effects for young children.
The release of that study – and its subsequent coverage – highlighted a broader and concerning trend, where accusations of harm from shale development are routinely blasted out as press releases and news stories before other experts can weigh in. In some cases, studies are promoted prior to publication and peer-review, a practice that scientists have frequently criticized. In other instances, previously debunked research that attempts to undermine the safety record of shale development is repackaged as a “new” discussion, providing yet another free forum for critics to assert claims against fracking.
Recycling the Narrative
A recent story from Bloomberg News demonstrated this dynamic with alarming clarity. The story, published on August 26, examines several studies that linked fracking with certain health problems. All of the research had been reported on prior to May 2014, and with the exception of one report from the state of Colorado, all of the studies linked hydraulic fracturing with birth defects, health problems, or even premature death.
Statements from Lisa McKenzie, with the Colorado School of Public Health, appeared throughout the story. McKenzie’s research linking fracking to negative health impacts has been cited frequently by activist groups trying to ban fracking, especially in her home state of Colorado. The Bloomberg story did acknowledge that Colorado health officials had disavowed her research, although McKenzie was given a fresh opportunity to respond to the state’s rebuttal.
The exact same debate was covered throughout Colorado after McKenzie’s study was initially published more than half a year ago, and activists capitalized on the news as an opportunity to lob additional complaints about shale development. Within days of the study’s release, the Natural Resources Defense Council – one of the largest and most influential environmental groups in the country – used the study to bash hydraulic fracturing as unsafe.
Although the recent Bloomberg story was not covering new research, it provided another opportunity for “ban fracking” groups to recycle their talking points about how hydraulic fracturing allegedly poses a threat to public health. The Sierra Club and Food & Water Watch – both of which oppose fracking – used social media channels to promote the news. The Wilderness Society claimed the story revealed “2 new studies” linking gas drilling to birth defects, even though no new studies were covered.
One couldn’t necessarily be blamed for thinking the story was examining newly released research, either. The opening line reads: “The first research into the effects of oil and gas development on babies born near wells has found potential health risks,” followed by a reference to McKenzie’s research, which was actually published seven months earlier.
Preempting Peer Review
Other “early research” cited by Bloomberg included two non-peer-reviewed studies focusing on Pennsylvania. Bloomberg had covered one of those when it was released in January, under the inflammatory headline, “Study Shows Fracking Is Bad for Babies.” But just days later, one of the authors told Andy Revkin with the New York Times that the study wasn’t ready for prime time: “[W]e are not trying to publicize the paper ahead of peer review,” said Dr. Janet Currie, the Director of the Center for Health and Well-Being at Princeton University. “We have not put the paper out as a working paper and aren’t comfortable circulating it yet.”
The other study was from Cornell University graduate student Elaine Hill, whose research was first publicized more than two years ago by a public relations firm that had been hired by a New York anti-fracking group. Hill would later regret that it was disseminated to the press before it had gone through peer review, and for good reason: several scientists, quoted by the New York Times, were deeply skeptical of Hill’s conclusions.
Ironically, even Lisa McKenzie, from the Colorado School of Public Health, said in response to Hill’s unpublished study: “Any results released prior to peer review should be approached with extreme caution.”
Unfortunately, Bloomberg News is not the only avenue through which studies critical of fracking have been publicized prematurely.
In January 2013, Nature reported on what appeared to be alarmingly high methane leakage from natural gas development, suggesting that the emissions are high enough to “erode” the “green credentials” of gas. The story was based on what a research team had presented at an American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco the month before. No paper had been published or peer-reviewed. Michael Levi with the Council on Foreign Relations said such coverage of research – without “even a draft paper available” – was bad for the magazine’s credibility. Of the specific leakage numbers, Levi tweeted that it was “maddening to have these hyped” without an actual paper to review.
Levi’s skepticism would later be validated, as the full study suffered from design flaws, and “had conflated a math trick with a physical phenomenon,” according to a subsequent analysis once the paper was published. Later that year, researchers at the University of Texas and the Environmental Defense Fund released a peer-reviewed paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, that suggested methane leakage rates were in line with the U.S. EPA’s estimates – far lower than what Nature had publicized.
In May of this year, several North Texas news outlets reported on preliminary research from the University of North Texas, which drew a link between increased ozone concentrations and Barnett Shale development. No study had been published, and no hard data were available. Instead, the claims were based on a single PowerPoint presentation distributed to the press. A closer examination of the presentation later revealed a lack of attention to other major contributors to ozone in the region, including the fourth busiest airport in the United States, Dallas-Fort Worth International. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has said airplanes and other aircraft are a “significant source of NOx, VOC, and CO emissions,” all of which contribute to ozone.
The Los Angeles Times recently reported on research suggesting that hydraulic fracturing is occurring within underground sources of drinking water. The study itself had not yet been peer-reviewed, much less published, and the entire story was based upon a single presentation that the researchers had given in San Francisco. Since the paper had not been published, the public had no way of independently assessing the validity of the research or the Times’ interpretation. Regardless, anti-fracking groups still promoted the story on social media.
Curiously, one of the researchers highlighted by the Times is a former U.S. EPA scientist who defended the agency’s infamous 2011 draft report that tried to link gas drilling with water contamination in Wyoming. The EPA faced intense criticism of its research from other regulators, and a mountain of evidence suggested its sampling data were flawed. The researcher – Dominic DiGiulio – famously attempted to dismiss those critiques. Data from the U.S. Geological Survey, however, showed at least 50 different results from what EPA had claimed to have found, and the USGS effectively disqualified one of only two monitoring wells EPA had used. The agency later withdrew the report before it could be subjected to peer-review.
As the preceding examples suggest, promoting findings before peer-review comes with great risk, especially when those findings are later challenged by the scientific community. Because of the almost inevitable fallout that results from pre-emptive coverage of findings about complex subjects (i.e. shale gas development), the New York Times’ Andy Revkin wrote two years ago that “science — however tentative — can get abused when publicity precedes peer review.”
The peer-review process, while not perfect, is intended to provide scientific scrutiny that could ultimately enhance a study’s credibility. Other times, it can help identify fundamental flaws with research, and thus prevent the dissemination of bad science.
As described earlier, the studies from Dr. McKenzie and her research team at the Colorado School of Public Health have received a great deal of attention, particularly from anti-fracking groups who regularly highlight her research as a part of their campaigns to shut down oil and gas development – even though state officials and other experts have provided sobering critiques of those studies. Food & Water Watch still references McKenzie’s research as a key part of its “Ban Fracking Now” fact sheet, and her conclusions are parroted by B-list celebrity “ban fracking” activists in Hollywood:
Other research drawing links between shale development and health impacts has been similarly exposed as flawed or limited, but not before anti-fracking groups had leveraged the findings to support their broader campaign against energy development.
In April, a law professor from the University of Texas released a study – billed as scientific research – that linked a “cancer cluster” to gas drilling near the north Texas community of Flower Mound. The State of Texas has looked into that theory, as has the Associated Press, and found little to no evidence to support it. Days after the paper’s release, prompted by an investigation led by Energy In Depth, lead researcher Rachael Rawlins – whose prior work with the anti-fracking group Breast Cancer Action was not disclosed in any news coverage – would admit to the Dallas Business Journal of her study: “The contribution is in law, not science.” Nonetheless, and predictably, anti-fracking activists promoted the study on their blogs and social media. A subsequent analysis by the Texas Department of State Health Services, released last month, found no evidence of a cancer cluster.
McKenzie’s studies and the Rawlins research had all been peer-reviewed, but the papers themselves clearly proved most valuable to activist groups working to ban hydraulic fracturing. Peer-review is a helpful tool in assessing the relative veracity of a particular piece of research, but it’s clearly not a silver bullet, either.
Charles G. Jennings, a former editor of the journal Nature, wrote several years ago that peer-review itself “deserves close scrutiny” since it has a role in “determining the allocation of career rewards and public resources,” among other issues. Jennings added:
“Peer review is not the one true solution for all time, and given the ever-increasing digitization of scientific communication, it would be foolish to think that no better solution can ever emerge to the problem of filtering scientific information.”
As such, peer-reviewed papers can still contain fundamental flaws. But those errors and misinterpretations can only be revealed if scrutiny is applied.
Indeed, when the CSPH researchers were challenged on their work, one of the co-authors was forced to admit: “It’s certainly not a conclusive study, and it doesn’t demonstrate that pollutants related to shale development have caused birth defects.” Yet the initial headlines made that connection anyway, no doubt because basic questions about the research were not asked until after the first cycle of media coverage. Nor did the CSPH researchers make that admission upon releasing their study, either.
What’s the Story?
It’s difficult to see how research that had been covered months or even years earlier – and had received significant criticism – could suddenly be considered fresh news again. The Bloomberg story did include a plug for a new, four-year research project led by CSPH’s McKenzie, which will presumably expand upon her previous findings. If the “pitch” for this article came from the Colorado School of Public Health, by individuals looking to promote McKenzie’s latest project, it would certainly explain why her prior studies were rehashed at length. Or, perhaps the activists who routinely cite the work from CSPH – despite its myriad flaws – wanted to resuscitate some old talking points and pitched the story themselves.
Regardless of the Bloomberg story’s inspiration, the problem is actually far bigger than one news outlet’s coverage. In the rush to raise doubts and questions about shale development, some people seem to have forgotten that science and engineering are at the core of developing oil and natural gas, and they form the basis for the numerous regulations that cover production activities. Decades of applied science and empirical research – from inside and outside industry – have shown that the risks associated with oil and natural gas development are not only manageable, but indeed are being managed through constantly-updated industry standards and an overlapping network of local, state, and federal rules.
Thus, the thousands of scientists and technical experts who work within the oil and natural gas industry are always looking to expand the knowledge base through robust and objective research. Safe operations can always be made safer, and that type of progress has always been predicated upon the use of sound science and hard data.
Unfortunately, too many people are willing to throw the scientific and regulatory consensus out the window based upon a single study that hasn’t been published, or even a handful of flawed papers that fail to recognize the conclusions of countless experts, which have been developed through decades of research. If that same standard were applied to every business in the United States, and not just oil and natural gas, then it’s doubtful any industry would ever be able to thrive.
If researchers or activists are going to present studies that could undermine an industry generating tens of billions of dollars in tax revenue and helping to employ millions of hardworking Americans, is it too much to ask that the claims first receive even the most basic scrutiny?