Appalachian Basin

Pennsylvania Artist Paints Misleading Picture of His Home State to Coloradans

Fracking took center stage during a discussion at the recent Annual Conference on World Affairs at the University of Colorado, Boulder.  The panel on Wednesday started out more global in scope, but then turned its focus to a region about 1,600 miles away—the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania.

As expected for a panel moderated by Boulder Mayor Suzanne Jones – an avowed anti-fracking activist – the falsehoods started flying near the get-go, but surprisingly, not from Jones.  Panelist Steve Rubin, an associate professor at Penn State’s School of Visual Arts, gave an unflattering analysis of fracking’s impacts on Pennsylvania that stands in stark contrast to what’s actually happening in the Commonwealth.

Here’s a quick recap of some of his statements and a bit of clarification.

Claim: Pennsylvania doesn’t charge companies a severance tax.
Fact: Pennsylvania has a unique impact fee that has generated nearly $2 billion since 2012.

It’s completely disingenuous to claim the state has no severance tax, without also describing Pennsylvania’s impact fee.  The state’s unique taxing structure based on wells drilled ensures that while the entire state benefits from the impact fee, the revenue is more heavily distributed to the counties and communities where development is occurring. In fact, “The $209 million in impact fees collected statewide in Pennsylvania for 2017 is more than the drilling taxes collected by West Virginia, Ohio, Arkansas and Colorado combined,” according to state Rep. Jonathon Fritz (R-Susquehanna and Wayne counties).

EID has a full breakdown of where this money goes, available here.

All of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties benefit from the impact fee, just one of the new revenue streams from natural gas development. According to David Spigelmyer, President of the Marcellus Shale Coalition:

“Pennsylvania’s unique tax on natural gas — the impact fee — is projected to generate nearly $1.7 billion since 2012, including a record $247 million this year. This existing annual tax revenue, when combined with other business taxes paid by the industry as well as lease bonuses and royalties tied to natural gas development on state land, has provided nearly $5 billion in revenue since unconventional shale gas development began.”

That money goes to improving Pennsylvania’s environment, building roads and funding emergency services.

Claim: The Pennsylvania Department of Health is underfunded and works too closely with industry.
Fact: Pennsylvania’s Department of Health is active in studying emissions and health concerns.

The department has actively studied the impacts of shale development for years – their findings haven’t fit the anti-fracking narrative, though. For instance, DOH’s 2018 study sampled air near well sites for a year and determined that “exposure to the contaminant levels found in ambient air are not expected to harm healthy individuals.” Further, the study found:

  • “The measured concentrations of acetaldehyde are substantially lower than those observed to have caused health effects in animals and humans based on scientific research studies. … The calculated additional cancer risk for this chemical is very low.”
  • “The measured concentrations of benzene are substantially lower than those observed to have caused health effects in humans and animals based on scientific research studies, and are similar to background levels measured in this project and in rural areas of the United States. The calculated additional cancer risk for this chemical is very low.”
  • “The measured concentrations of formaldehyde are substantially lower than those observed to have caused cancer health effects in humans based on scientific research studies, and are consistent with background levels measured in the United States.”
  • “The general population of healthy and sensitive individuals are not expected to experience harmful effects from PM2.5 exposure at the levels found in the PADEP long term air data set.”

Notably, regulators in Colorado found similar data. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment conducted its own comprehensive study on air quality and emissions from oil and gas in 2017.  Its report analyzed more than 10,000 air samples in the areas of the state where “substantial” oil and natural gas operations occurred, finding that emission levels were “safe,” even for sensitive populations. “Based on currently available air monitoring data, the risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living [near] (sic) oil and gas operations,” with the CDPHE authors concluding that “[a]t this time, results from exposure and health effect studies do not indicate the need for immediate public health action.”

Claim: Fracking has impacted water quality in Rural Pennsylvania.
Fact: More than 30
peer-reviewed studies and scientific reports – including many focused on Pennsylvania – have found that fracking is not a threat to groundwater. 

The Marcellus Shale has been the focal point of the lion’s share of research on water quality near oil and natural gas development. Here’s a list of the studies and reports published just since 2017:

  • Department of Environmental Protection (2018): “[T]here is no evidence that hydraulic fracturing has resulted in a direct impact to a water supply in Pennsylvania.”
  • Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (2018): “Water quality monitoring efforts by the bureau and its partners have not raised significant concerns on state forest headwater streams to date.”
  • Yale University (2018): “Collectively, our observations suggest that [shale gas development] was an unlikely source of methane in our valley wells.”
  • Penn State University (2018): “The most interesting thing we discovered was the groundwater chemistry in one of the areas most heavily developed for shale gas – an area with 1400 new gas wells – does not appear to be getting worse with time, and may even be getting better.”
  • Department of Environmental Protection (2018): “[T]he majority of wells in the state are being operated in a manner that greatly reduces the risk for groundwater impacts.”
  • Susquehanna River Basin Commission (2017): “To date, the Commission’s network of monitors has not detected discernible impacts [from shale development] on the Basin’s water resources…”

As part of this claim, Rubin also alleged that fracking impacted water supplies of cattle and other farm animals on properties near shale development. This was reminiscent of  Bamberger et al. 2012  –  a study that also purported chemicals from fracking were harming farm animals. However, the researchers failed to find any conclusive links and were forced to concede, “By the standards of a controlled experiment, this is an imperfect study…” Because they lacked data, researchers used anonymous personal testimonials that cannot be independently assessed or verified.

Dr. Ian Rae, a professor at the University of Melbourne in Australia and a co-chair of the Chemicals Technical Options Committee for the United Nations Environment Programme, had this to say about their work:

“It certainly does not qualify as a scientific paper but is, rather, an advocacy piece … [and the authors] cannot be regarded as experts in the field with broad experience and attainments.”

The researchers, husband and wife duo Robert Oswald and Michelle Bamberger, have been heavily involved in the “ban fracking” campaign in Ithaca, N.Y. as well. For example:

“Robert Oswald of the Concerned Citizens of Ulysses, a group that helped collect some 1,000 signatures supporting a fracking ban, said he felt ‘fantastic.’

‘We had to do it,’ he said of the ban.”

Claim: Living near hydraulic fracturing causes low birthweights
Fact: Multiple studies have shown these claims have been unsubstantiated.

In 2017, a study claimed that evidence showed fracking was responsible for greater incidences of low birth weights in babies born to mothers living near Pennsylvania shale production sites. The findings were unsurprising given that the report’s major funder — the MacArthur Foundation — has also spent millions funding anti-fossil fuel groups

But a quick look at the study found it to be riddled with contradictory data and other flaws, raising questions about whether the authors oversold its findings.  Namely, the report found that the risk was actually higher for mothers who resided farther away from fracking sites; it did not actually measure pollution or air quality data; researchers admitted that the sampled population would be expected to have similar health impacts even without nearby fracking; and infant mortality rates in the most heavily drilled Pa. counties are actually declining faster than the rest of the state.

Similar issues arose for a prior study released in 2015.

Bottom line:

Fracking has had a major impact on Pennsylvania – but not in the way Rubin framed the situation on the ground.  In the years since hydraulic fracturing has been widely deployed throughout the state, it’s lowered emissions and consumer energy costs, driven billions of dollars in investment and new industries, turned the state into a net energy exporter in less than a decade, created thousands of good-paying jobs and lowered unemploymentdecreased and in some cases prevented increased property taxes, enhanced workforce education and training programs, generated millions in additional funds to improve infrastructure, rural health care systems, emergency services and equipment, and rural gas distribution – just to name a few.  That’s the real story, not using anecdotal evidence and false claims to fit a given narrative.

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