Shameful: Denver Post Helps Anti-Energy Group Politicize Infant Deaths in Utah
Dr. Brian Moench, an activist with Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, calls people who work in the fossil-fuel industry “psychopaths” and says they are guilty of “treason.”
On October 26, a Denver Post reporter, Nancy Lofholm, published a story implicating oil and natural gas development in infant mortality in eastern Utah. It received front-page treatment, even though most of the people interviewed for the story disagreed there was any such connection. In fact, the story hinges on the opinions of just a few sources who actively oppose oil and gas development or whose claims have been otherwise discredited by public health officials. But the Post’s readers were not told this.
A key source is a fringe political activist who believes the oil and gas industry is run by “psychopaths” who are guilty of “treason” and pose a bigger threat to the United States than “Al Qaeda, Russia, China or Iran.” He believes “zombie-like” corporations have become a “gang of Frankenstein monsters” who are “dragging us into the abyss of an apocalyptic, uninhabitable world.” The same activist even suggests mammograms may cause breast cancer and defends the discredited theory that vaccinations have caused autism.
The other two sources are researchers whose attempts to link oil and gas operations with infertility, cancer and birth defects have been debunked by Colorado public health officials. One of the researchers even sought funding from anti-energy activists Josh Fox, Mark Ruffalo and Yoko Ono after the National Institutes of Health rejected her grant application. The same researcher has praised the “ban fracking” Gasland movies as “educational” with “a lot of good information.”
But none of this background was disclosed to readers. Instead, Lofholm presented these sources as unbiased, credible experts. This arguably runs afoul of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which says the public deserves “as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources,” and it’s not the first time this has happened at the Post. Environmental writer Bruce Finley was found on several occasions by Energy In Depth and the conservative political website Colorado Peak Politics to have misrepresented anti-industry activists as regular citizens or impartial experts. Similarly, during Colorado’s historic flooding in September 2013 – when anti-energy activists were aggressively lobbying the news media to cover the tragedy as a “fracking flood disaster” – the Post ran a front-page photo that wrongly identified standing water as an oil spill.
Lofholm’s story also lacks any comment from the oil and gas industry. In fact, there’s no sign in the story of an interview request being made. If confirmed, this would be another ethical lapse. This story is about the alleged impacts of the oil and gas industry, and the SPJ code states: “Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.” The story, which suggests that environmental impacts are being dismissed or covered up, does not even acknowledge the oil and gas industry is financially supporting the air quality research of federal, state and local agencies in Utah’s Uintah Basin.
But worst of all, Lofholm’s story elevates the word of anti-energy activists and discredited researchers above the views of a local doctor, the Utah Department of Public Health’s top epidemiologist and the heartbroken parents of babies who were stillborn or died as infants. The story even insinuates the parents who lost their children care more about economics than getting answers for why their babies died, i.e. “[T]he reluctance around Vernal to ascribe any ill effects to energy-field pollution could be tied to the average $3,963 average monthly nonfarm wage in Uintah County — the highest in Utah.”
In effect, the Post is helping anti-energy political activists and discredited researchers exploit these family tragedies to advance their own agendas. The story now lives on the Post’s website under the sensationalist headline: “Dead babies near oil drilling sites raise questions for researchers.” The whole episode is deeply disturbing when you consider just how easily the reliability and motivations of Lofholm’s key sources could have been – and should have been – checked out by the reporter and her editors.
Physician, heal thyself
Dr. Brian Moench of the activist group Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment joins activists to block the gates of an oil refinery and protest the Keystone XL pipeline.
In Lofholm’s story, a Salt Lake City doctor makes the strongest case that oil and gas development is responsible for increased infant mortality in Vernal, Utah:
“‘Suffice it to say that air pollution from drilling is a part of it,’’ Dr. Brian Moench said of the Vernal-area deaths.”
Moench is presented as a medical professional and president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE). There is no mention of UPHE being an activist group that opposes energy and mining projects, including the Keystone XL pipeline. Therefore, readers of the story are denied the information they need to decide whether Moench is giving a medical opinion or a political one.
In fact, Moench’s work on environmental issues is driven by some extremely strong political views. He’s published dozens of op-eds on the left-wing website Truth-Out.org, including a May 2014 column about his work in Vernal. In that column, “Dead Babies and Utah’s Carbon Bomb,” he makes clear his fervent opposition to energy development:
“With jobs, increased tax base, new community recreation centers, burgeoning store fronts on Main Street, people with money to spend – what’s not to like? Well, dead babies perhaps…
This drama is also a larger metaphor with global implications. Eastern Utah could be considered ground zero for the battle to keep the world’s fossil fuels in the ground…
[I]t means dramatically more drought, shrinking snow pack and water resources, more wildfires and dead forests, unsustainable agriculture, and apocalyptic dust storms – a complete collapse of the human carrying capacity of the Western United States. And it means more dead babies, a lot more.”
From there, Moench’s views just get more extreme. In the following interview with anti-nuclear and anti-fracking activist Helen Caldicott, Moench blames “ignorance on the part of the public” for the failure of his fringe environmental agenda. When Caldicott suggests representatives of the oil and gas industry should stand trial like the Nazis in Nuremberg, Moench replies:
Moench: I know if we were to use the word treason, to some people that word would sound a little harsh. But back up one step and say, well what really does constitute treason? If you’re willfully endangering the lives of other people, how else do you describe that? I mean, I don’t know a term that’s more appropriate.
Caldicott: Well, it’s murder!
Besides treason, Moench blames widespread mental illness for the fact that so few Americans share his world view. In a blog called “Schizophrenics, Psychopaths Holding America Hostage,” he argues:
“I’ve been struck by how large portions of the country are mired in schizophrenic distortions of reality and how prominent business leaders and politicians overtly display personality traits common to psychopaths. Vestiges of widespread mental illness abound…
Who cares about the collapse of civilization when there are quarterly profits to be made? How are these captains of the fossil fuel industry not psychopaths?…
Our nation’s responses to the climate crisis, the federal deficit, our economic stagnation and many of our other serious challenges are still being held hostage by people who manifest a detachment from reality as profound as that of schizophrenics. We are still allowing a powerful elite, who behave like psychopaths, to steer our government towards protecting their interests at the expense of everyone else. The greatest threat to the United States will never be Al Qaeda, Russia, China or Iran. It will be our failure to wrest control of public policy from the inmates of our own insane asylum.”
But Moench’s fringe views aren’t limited to environmental policy. In his interview with Helen Caldicott, he suggests fewer women should have mammograms to screen for breast cancer, because “it is a delivery of radiation and it may also cause some cancers”:
According to the National Breast Cancer Foundation, a mammogram “remains the gold standard for the early detection of breast cancer” and it’s a “myth” that the very small amount of radiation from the procedure carries significant cancer risks. But Moench is also an anti-nuclear activist, and in order to support his political agenda, he tries to scare the public with claims like: “There is no such thing as a ‘safe’ amount of radiation exposure.”
Not content with sowing doubts about mammograms, Moench has also defended the debunked theory that vaccinations increase the risk of autism in children. In response to a lengthy article on the controversy from science journalist Chris Mooney, Moench wrote:
“Pretty one sided article, written as though the writer had reached his conclusion before doing the research and then set out to justify the conclusion. In fact, there is still a wealth of scientitic [sic] studies that not only implicate thimerasol but also implicate environmental factors…
It is because of cost savings, convenience and capitulation to the pharmaceutical industry that thimerasol was allowed for decades after it should have been discontinued and in fact was in most other countries. The fact that many of thimerasol’s defenders have a clear conflict of interest in defending it, and that includes the CDC and the IOM, was also not mentioned in the article.”
Here is what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says about thimerasol, the vaccine preservative criticized by Moench:
“Research does not show any link between thimerosal and autism. … Thimerosal has been used safely in vaccines for a long time (since the 1930s) and has a proven track record of being safe. A variety of scientists have been studying the use of vaccines that have thimerosal in them for many years. They haven’t found any actual evidence that thimerosal causes harm.”
It doesn’t take much effort to discover that Moench is more than an anti-energy activist. He also embraces the paranoid, anti-capitalistic philosophy of the Occupy Wall Street movement, writing in another op-ed that “corporations and the 1 percent manipulate every level of government to serve their profit-driven agendas and simultaneously disregard – if not openly undermine – the interests of the 99 percent.” But the true measure of Moench’s ideology can be found in his “Death By Corporation” op-ed series. For example, a proposed trans-Pacific trade deal supported by the Obama administration is really “America’s Corporate Deathstar,” according to Moench, who says:
“[M]any of the most powerful corporations have indeed become a gang of Frankenstein monsters, turning on us with a zombie-like indifference, with diabolical schemes of profitability at our expense, even to the point of dragging us into the abyss of an apocalyptic, uninhabitable world.
So where do we find humans who wear the disguise of accomplished, gifted, and honorable people, and yet when there is money to be made are willing to jump into the corporate phone booth and emerge not as Superman but as Vishnu, from the Hindu scripture Bhagavad-Gita, who declares, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds?’”
For anyone who cares to know the answer to Moench’s “destroyer of worlds” question, it’s Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential nominee.
Moench may be a skilled anesthesiologist, but as an activist, he’s gripped by an ideological rage against the fossil fuel industry and just about every other sector of the U.S. economy. Clearly, these ideological convictions – not the facts – are driving his campaign against the oil and gas industry and fueling his claims that oil and gas development is causing infant mortality in Eastern Utah.
At the very least, readers of the Post deserved to know that Moench is a fringe political activist who routinely makes unsubstantiated attacks on the oil and gas industry and the business community in general. But, more than that, it is unbelievable that The Denver Post relied on the word of such a paranoid and angry ideologue to implicate the men and women of the oil and gas industry – many of them parents – in the deaths of small children. It’s even more unfathomable when you consider many other sources with much more credibility – including grieving parents – flatly disagree with Moench’s claims.
Dear Yoko Ono: Please fund my anti-fracking research
At an event to promote her work, University of Missouri researcher Susan Nagel was asked why hydraulic fracturing is allowed to continue when it’s “bad.” She replied: “It makes a whole lot of money.”
The next source the Post uses to lay these infant deaths at the feet of the oil and gas industry is University of Missouri researcher Dr. Susan Nagel. According to Lofholm’s story:
“‘I suspect it is real — that there is a relationship,’ said Susan Nagel, Ph.D, a University of Missouri School of Medicine researcher who is focusing her studies on fracking-fluid chemicals that affect hormones.”
Later, the story notes “Nagel is in Moench’s corner” and references a paper she wrote on water samples taken in Colorado’s Garfield County. But Lofholm fails to mention that Nagel’s research – which focuses on endocrine-disrupting chemicals – was seriously questioned by health officials with the State of Colorado.
In a statement to the media, the Water Quality Control Division of the Colorado Department Public Health and Environment listed a series of criticisms against the paper, including geological assumptions that were “not factually or scientifically valid.” The paper ignored other sources of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, such as septic tanks, and the CDPHE questioned the legitimacy of comparing water samples from Western Colorado to water samples almost 1,000 miles away near Columbia, Mo., where Nagel is based. State health officials also concluded “there is no indication in the study that any of the sample sites are currently used for drinking water.”
Separately, the medical publication Clinical Advisor noted “a lack of direct identification of fracking chemicals in the tested water.” In other words, besides no evidence of health impacts, there was no link to fracturing fluids either – that was just assumed. But this didn’t stop Nagel from blasting out a press release claiming: “With fracking on the rise, populations may face greater health risks from increased endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure,” with those risks including “infertility, cancer and birth defects.” As intended, the press release generated press coverage, including stories in the Denver Post and L.A. Times.
When Energy In Depth challenged Nagel on making “inflammatory” claims based on a flawed study – and one of those flaws included “technical advice” from well-known Colorado anti-drilling activist Theo Colborn – Nagel responded with an interview in the Daily Tribune of Columbia, Mo.:
“Susan Nagel, one of the researchers for the study and an associate professor for the MU Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health, said government regulations on fracking are weak.
‘The EPA is just impotent to be proactive and apply typical, normal and preventative environmental monitoring,’ she said.”
This sounds more like advocacy than science, and a couple of days later, Nagel doubled down in an interview with the Huffington Post:
“‘This is a canary in a coal mine that we need to pay attention to.’ Nagel told the HuffPost of the findings. ‘And it is absolutely a cause for concern.'”
Something else the Post failed to mention when presenting Nagel as an objective expert: When she tried to turn her research paper into a research grant from the National Institutes of Health, it was rejected. As she explained to her college-town alternative paper, “it was not good enough to be funded, and they suggested more preliminary data.”
Faced with rejection from the NIH, Nagel kicked off a “crowdfunding” project to raise money for her research over the Internet, complete with more unsupported and inflammatory claims:
“One of the greatest joys for those who want to start a family is to be pregnant and have a healthy baby. Based on our previous research, this natural course may be threatened by hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ for gas and oil.”
“Not every published scientific study gets a lot of media attention, but Nagel’s did – and she’s banking on that in the crowdfunding campaign…”
Nagel’s fundraising campaign included a talk – titled “What the Frack?” – at a brewery in downtown Columbia. There, she lamented that her primary role was “to bring in money to the lab – that’s what we do”:
But during her “What the Frack?” presentation, Nagel provided more commentary about her personal views towards the oil and gas industry and the technology of hydraulic fracturing. When asked by an audience member “if they know it’s bad, why do they keep doing it?” Nagel answered: “It makes a whole lot of money.” Nagel also argued state-level regulators have an “inherent conflict of interest” in overseeing the oil and gas industry.
That’s a political assessment, not a scientific one. It ignores the reality that, as the U.S. Department of Energy and Ground Water Protection Council have concluded, oil and gas development is “regulated under a complex set of federal, state, and local laws that address every aspect of exploration and operation.” It ignores that even environmental officials in the Obama administration have repeatedly concluded states are doing a good job as the primary regulators of oil and gas development. For example, President Obama’s Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz – a scientist and former physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – supports the continuation of the “very, very strong state role” in the regulation of oil and gas development.
Nagel’s political assessment is also consistent with the view of political activists like Josh Fox, a New York theater director and the maker of “ban fracking” movies Gasland and Gasland Part II. In fact, during her talk, Nagel even endorsed those anti-industry movies as “educational” because they contain “a lot of good information” and are only “a little sensational.”
Nagel’s embrace of the Gasland series is jaw-dropping given the well-documented use of deception in those movies to advance the political agenda of Josh Fox and his followers on the fringe of the environmental movement.
But it gets worse. In the closing days of her fundraising drive, Nagel even made a public appeal to the community of “ban fracking” activists to give her money. Below are the tweets she sent to Fox and celebrity activists Mark Ruffalo, founder of the “ban fracking” group Water Defense, and Yoko Ono, founder of Artists Against Fracking. Ruffalo and Ono’s groups are founding members of Frack Free Colorado, which is actively campaigning against the oil and gas industry in the same state where Nagel wants to conduct her follow-up research into the oil and gas industry.
— Susan C. Nagel, PhD (@SusanCNagel) May 16, 2014
— Susan C. Nagel, PhD (@SusanCNagel) May 16, 2014
— Susan C. Nagel, PhD (@SusanCNagel) June 16, 2014
It is stunning that in a story that questions the credibility and the motives of everyone who lives in Vernal, Utah – even grieving parents – Nagel gets a pass from Lofholm and the Post. In fact, Nagel’s willingness to speculate about the deaths of those children, with little to no research to support that speculation, should have rung alarm bells for both the reporter and her editors. Instead, the Post gave Nagel a platform to promote herself and raise more money for research to support some already strong opinions about the oil and gas industry.
Disavowed researcher embraced by “ban fracking” activists
Finally, Lofholm draws partial support for her story from Dr. Lisa McKenzie of the Colorado School of Public Health. McKenzie has tried – and failed – to link birth defects to oil and gas development, and even Lofholm’s story includes the following disclaimer:
“[S]ome other researchers and the oil and gas industry have criticized her research methods and findings.”
Those vaguely defined “other researchers” actually include the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. McKenzie and her fellow researchers weren’t just criticized for their methods and findings, either. They were disavowed by the CDPHE, who provided her research team with the state birth records used for their 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. As Energy In Depth noted at the time, McKenzie leads a team of researchers whose work 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 McKenzie’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.”
Lofholm’s story links to the news article which carried this concession. Yet her story in the Post about infant mortality in Eastern Utah fails to mention it.
The total rejection of this paper by Colorado public health officials was a vital piece of information for Denver Post readers to judge McKenzie’s credibility as a source, but it was not disclosed to them. Instead, it was glossed over, allowing a controversial researcher with no evidence that oil and gas development causes harm to unborn children to suggest exactly the opposite.
In the middle of Lofholm’s story about infant mortality in Eastern Utah there is a seven word sentence: “A study found no connection with drilling.” It’s a reference to the last time Lofholm gave a platform to anti-industry activists to frighten the public with reckless speculation about the health of babies and expectant mothers. Anti-energy groups like The Endocrine Disruption Exchange and the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance tried to pin reports of birth defects in Garfield County on the oil and gas industry, but an investigation from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found those cases were “not linked to any common risk factors.” Lofholm reported on both the claims and the outcome of the CDPHE study.
It is remarkable, then, that when confronted again with similar claims, rather than wait for the outcome of a health department investigation, Lofholm and her editors decided once more to implicate oil and gas development. And they did so when most of the people quoted in their story – including grieving parents – disagreed completely with the premise of the story.
Let’s be clear: This isn’t the first time a news organization has rushed to judgment whenever an anti-energy activist makes alarmist claims about the oil and gas industry. It won’t be the last. But that doesn’t make it right, the Denver Post should have known better, and we look forward to seeing what, if anything, the newspaper does about it.