The United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) — an independent regulator charged with preventing misleading, harmful and/or offensive advertisements — came to an informal ruling this week that the anti-fracking group, Friends of the Earth (FOE), released leaflets that could not be backed up by evidence.
While we don’t enjoy seeing government suppressing free speech (and are thankful we live in a country where that’s prohibited — usually), we can’t help but notice a bigger issue here: the lack of evidence that underpins the entire anti-fracking campaign, domestic and abroad.
Interestingly, these misleading and unsubstantiated claims by FOE regarding health impacts, drinking water, asthma and property values just happen to be remarkably similar to claims regularly made by U.S. anti-fracking activists, as the all-too-familiar examples on the following image from the leaflet shows.
FOE was given one year to produce evidence of the above claims, but failed to do so. As a result, ASA reached an agreement with FOE that the group could no longer make such claims against fracking “in the absence of adequate evidence.”
ASA CEO Guy Parker explained the decision further:
“So let me be clear. We told Friends of the Earth that based on the evidence we’d seen, claims it made in its anti-fracking leaflet or claims with the same meaning cannot be repeated, and asked for an assurance that they wouldn’t be. Friends of the Earth gave us an assurance to that effect. Unless the evidence changes, that means it mustn’t repeat in ads claims about the effects of fracking on the health of local populations, drinking water or property prices.”
FOE has agreed to the terms that it must “not make claims about the likely effects of fracking on the health of local populations, drinking water, or property prices in the absence of adequate evidence,” and that its leaflet “must not appear again in its current form.”
Francis Egan, CEO of Cuadrilla Resources, the company that, along with two other individuals, challenged the FOE leaflet, said in a press release:
“After many attempts by Friends of the Earth to delay this decision, the charity’s admission that all of the claims it made, that we complained about, were false should hopefully put a stop to it misleading the UK public on fracking. Friends of the Earth’s repeated falsehoods have been exposed as nothing more than scaremongering designed to frighten the public into giving it money. It is the unacceptable face of the charity sector.”
Additionally, FOE even attempted to use studies and anecdotal stories from the United States in its defense of the leaflet. But ASA rejected the so-called evidence presented over the course of a year because of the differing regulatory framework in the U.K., and the inconclusive and anecdotal nature of the examples given by FOE.
To illustrate how similar the false claims from FOE are to those made by U.S.-based anti-fracking groups, here are the FOE claims and ASA responses as they appeared in the London Times, as well as nearly identical claims made by American anti-fracking groups.
Activist Claim: Fracking contaminates drinking water
FOE language: Fracking fluid containing “a toxic cocktail of chemicals . . . could end up in your drinking water.”
U.S.-based Food & Water Watch language: Fracking involves “millions of gallons of toxic fracking fluid” and fracking “harms our drinking water.”
ASA response: “Public Health England considered the potential impact on public drinking water supplies was minimal. The Environment Agency would not permit the use of hazardous substances . . . where they might enter groundwater.”
FACT: In addition to Public Health England’s assessment of the impacts, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also recently released its five year study of groundwater impacts from fracking and found that “the overall incidence of impacts is low.”
The EPA report also looked at 497 spill reports from the fracking fluid chemical mixing process — which occurs when the fracturing crew prepares the water-based solution for delivery into the formation — and found “no documented impacts to groundwater” from those spills, as the following chart from the report illustrates,
In fact the report found that the median spill rate of hydraulic fracturing fluid is just 2.6 per every 100 wells, and also provided proper context regarding fracking fluid concentrations,
“Once chemicals are mixed with the base fluid to form the hydraulic fracturing fluid, the chemical is diluted to much lower concentrations, which has the potential for a less severe impact.”
The EPA report also clearly states that upward migration of fracking fluid from depth through fractures into water tables is highly unlikely, if not impossible,
“…due to the very low permeabilities of shale formations; this means that hydraulic fracturing operations are unlikely to generate sufficient pressure to drive fluids into shallow drinking water zones.”
Activist Claim: Fracking causes cancer
FOE language: “Studies have shown that 25 percent of fracking chemicals could cause cancer.”
U.S.-Based Natural Resources Defense Council language: “… many of the 1,000-plus chemicals used in fracking are harmful to human health — some are known to cause cancer.”
ASA Response: “We understood that hazardous chemicals would not be permitted in fracking in the UK, and that chemicals approved for use must not cause pollution.”
FACT: Fracking opponents often suggest the mere presence of chemicals linked to cancer in fracking fluid pose a threat. This willful misrepresentation of reality ignores the fact that dose and exposure levels are the most relevant factors in determining the risk posed by a substance linked to cancer. Fact is, literally everything we encounter on a day-to-day basis contains something that is carcinogenic on some level. Castor beans contain ricin, almonds contain cyanide, formaldehyde naturally occurs in apples and benzene can be found in shampoo, just to name a few examples. So in short, dose matters.
That said, chemical concentrations in fracking fluid are very low, and the public is not exposed either. Fracking fluid is typically 99.5 percent water and sand, while the remaining 0.5 percent is made up of additives. According to a recent EPA report of more than 38,000 disclosures to FracFocus, the maximum concentration of all additives was less than one percent and the median maximum fracking fluid concentration was 0.43 percent by mass.
Activist Claim: Fracking is increasing asthma hospitalization rates.
FOE language: “A hospital near a US fracking site has shown that asthma rates are three times higher than average.”
Sierra Club language: Fracking has left kids “struggling with asthma.”
ASA Response: “The review on which FoE had based the claim . . . did not demonstrate that the fracking site was responsible for increases in asthma.”
Not only were researchers from Johns Hopkins University actually unable to link asthma hospitalizations to nearby shale development in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, but data released shortly after the study by the Pa. Department of Health (PADOH) showed that heavily-drilled counties within the study area have far lower age-adjusted rates of asthma hospitalizations than nine counties in the study area that have no shale gas production at all. This can be seen in the following chart from the PADOH report:
In fact, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has released data showing emissions rates of criteria pollutants known to exacerbate asthma symptoms dropping as shale development has increased, as the following EID infographic shows:
Activist Claim: Fracking is negatively impacting the housing market
FOE language: Fracking causes “plummeting house prices.”
Earthworks’ language: “Fracking in residential areas impacts the property value of both lease owners and their neighbors.”
ASA Response: Evidence was not robust and included a survey of estate agents that was “anecdotal and did not indicate a rapid and significant fall.”
FACT: A recent study from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Princeton University, the University of Chicago and the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) provides evidence that anti-fracking activists’ frequent claims that shale development is lowering home values simply is simply not true in the United States. From the study:
“The estimates indicate that median and mean housing values for owner-occupied homes increased by 5.7 percent due to fracing. Further, the median price of mobile homes increased by almost 8 percent.”
The study continues:
“Overall, we conclude that the initiation of fracing led to meaningful increases in housing prices in counties especially amenable to fracing, relative to other counties in the same shale play.” (emphasis added)
EID research in 2015 had similar findings, as the following infographic demonstrates:
In this case at least, citizens of the United Kingdom will be receiving one less misleading bit of information from a group that isn’t going to let a little thing called facts stand in their way of stopping needed and economically beneficial development.