NRDC’s “New” Report Just a Rehash of Old (and Discredited) Studies

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) recently published a report suggesting that “fracking fumes” from natural gas development are putting air quality (and people’s health) in at risk.  Unsurprisingly, the NRDC has no new data to present, or indeed any real evidence to back up these claims – so it simply repackages old (and primarily debunked) reports in a clear effort to generate new headlines. (We’re noticing a pattern here, by the way).

Nevertheless, let’s dispel their myths and have a look at the facts.

CLAIM: “There is mounting evidence for a range of health threats from air pollution.”

FACT: In this section, NRDC simply rehashes reports by the anti-fracking Environment America; some researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health who are favorites of anti-energy campaigners and famous for distorting the facts; and a study in Washington County, Pa, conducted in conjunction with the anti-fracking Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project.  As EID has pointed out here, here and here, all of these studies contain serious flaws in their methodologies.

In reality, decades of experience have shown that emissions from oil and gas production – like other industries – are both manageable and being managed by energy producers and the state and federal regulators who enforce the nation’s stringent air quality laws.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment installed air quality monitors at a well site that activists claimed was dangerous.  Instead, public health officials found: “The monitored concentrations of benzene, one of the major risk driving chemicals, are well within acceptable limits to protect public health, as determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The concentrations of various compounds are comparatively low and are not likely to raise significant health issues of concern.”

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection conducted air quality monitoring on wells in the Marcellus Shale and concluded that, “when looking at the individual operations, the emissions do not seem to create ambient air pollution conditions where acute adverse health impacts are expected.”

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.”

study by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) found no major health threat from shale development, concluding, “Based on a review of completed air studies to date, including the results from the well pad development monitoring conducted in West Virginia’s Brooke, Marion, and Wetzel Counties, no additional legislative rules establishing special requirements need to be promulgated at this time.”

Most recently, a report commissioned by Fort Cherry School District in Pennsylvania, which studied air emissions at a well site in Fort Cherry School District came to the conclusion that the samples “did not show anything remarkable with respect to chemicals detected in the ambient air. When volatile compounds were detected, they were consistent with background levels measured at the school and in other areas in Washington County. Furthermore, a basic yet conservative screening level evaluation shows that the detected volatile compounds were below health-protective levels.”

There’s also a reason Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy said, “natural gas has been a game changer with our ability to really move forward with pollution reductions that have been very hard to get our arms around for many decades.”

Evidence of this abounds.  The Pennsylvania DEP’s latest emissions inventory found a dramatic reduction in air pollution thanks to hydraulic fracturing and natural gas, which represent “between $14 billion and $37 billion of annual public health benefit,” according to the DEP. In another study, the Pennsylvania DEP also found that over 500 million tons of emissions have actually been removed from the Commonwealth’s air thanks in large part to the increased use of natural gas.  An environmental think tank, The Breakthrough Institute, found that the increased development and utilization of natural gas has “dramatically reduced emissions across Pennsylvania.”

CLAIM:  “In Colorado, for example, an evaluation of birth defects in areas with high concentrations of oil and gas activity found that mothers who lived near many oil and gas wells were 30 percent more likely to have babies with heart defects.”

FACT: This claim comes from a report by a team of researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health who were disavowed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, who provided the state birth records used for the paper. It was so poorly researched, and its findings were so alarmist, that the CDPHE demanded the inclusion of a disclaimer in the paper itself:

“CDPHE specifically disclaims responsibility for any analyses, interpretations, or conclusions.”

On the day the paper was made public, the CDPHE followed up with a statement from the department’s executive director, Dr. Larry Wolk, debunking the researchers and warning the public could “easily be misled” by the paper. Wolk said health officials “disagree with many of the specific associations” in the study, which rely on “miniscule” statistical differences. The researchers also ignored “many factors” besides natural gas development in their research, he said.

This was a stunning rebuke from a public health agency. But Wolk’s statement was even more powerful because he is a practicing physician and a former winner of the Colorado Pediatrician of the Year award.

As Energy In Depth noted when the paper was released, this team of researchers is routinely cited by anti-energy groups and it even made the script of a celebrity video attacking Gov. John Hickenlooper and demanding a statewide oil and gas development ban in Colorado.

As the paper came under closer scrutiny, one of paper’s 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.”

CLAIM: “The oil and gas industry enjoys numerous exemptions from parts of key environmental and health protection laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and Hazardous Waste Laws.”

FACT: Oil and gas producers are not exempt from federal laws.  In fact, a report released by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in September 2012 makes clear that producers have to comply with no less than eight federal regulations. From that report:

“As with conventional oil and gas development, requirements from eight federal environmental and public health laws apply to unconventional oil and gas development. For example, the Clean Water Act (CWA) regulates discharges of pollutants into surface waters.  Among other things, CWA requires oil and gas well site operators to obtain permits for discharges of produced water – which includes fluids used for hydraulic fracturing, as well as water the occurs naturally in oil- or gas-bearing formations – to surface waters.  In addition, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) governs the management and disposal of hazardous wastes, among other things.”

Not only do oil and gas producers have to comply with overarching federal laws, they must also adhere to strict state and sometimes local laws as well. Far from being exempt, oil and gas producers are regulated on multiple levels.

CLAIM: “In addition to the community health concerns from fracking, worker safety at oil and gas sites is also coming under increased scrutiny, in part because the oil and gas industry is one of the most dangerous occupational sectors in the county.”

FACT: That’s simply not true: the oil and gas industry actually has a significantly lower workplace injury rate compared to other industries.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) oil and gas ranks well below numerous fields including fishing, bartending, and taxi and limo drivers, just to name a few.

It’s important to understand that while oil production – and employment in the oil and gas sector – has skyrocketed, fatal injuries have significantly declined. According the 2013 BLS Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, fatal work injuries in the private mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction sector were 15 percent lower in 2013 than they were in 2012. Further, the number of fatal workplace injury cases in the oil and gas extraction industry was over 20 percent lower in 2013.

Worker safety is of utmost importance and to be clear, no injury or fatality is acceptable.  That’s exactly why the oil and gas industry has partnered with the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in order to continue making improvements on this positive trend.  As Eric Esswien, a Senior Industrial Hygienist at NIOSH stated last year after visiting a number of wells sites, the oil and gas industry “runs very, very safe work practices and sites.”


There’s a good reason that groups like NRDC have recently taken to rehashing old, discredited reports: the scientific evidence is so strongly against them, and they have no new evidence to support their claims, that they have to resort to repackaging old material in an attempt to garner the desired headlines purporting harm.  Given their track record, it’s not surprising that very few outlets even noticed.


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