The Dubious Scientific Foundation for New York’s Fracking Ban
This week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) announced that New York will not allow hydraulic fracturing to occur within the state, based upon a newly released report by the state’s Department of Health (DOH), which claimed that there isn’t enough scientific evidence to ensure the process is safe. DOH “reviewed and evaluated relevant emerging scientific literature investigating the environmental health and community health dimensions of HVHF,” according to the report.
Most of that literature, however, has been either discredited or shown to have exceedingly faulty methodologies. Interestingly, when discussing just about every one of these dubious studies, DOH admits that they actually didn’t have any evidence to link hydraulic fracturing to health impacts.
We have a feeling more will come to light on the curious research that Governor Cuomo used to justify his fracking ban, but for the moment, let’s take a closer look at just a few of the studies reviewed by the New York State Department of Health:
McKenzie et al. (Colorado School of Public Health)
This study, which suggests a link between fracking and birth defects, was authored by a team of researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH) led by Lisa McKenzie.
What DOH doesn’t explain is that the researchers were actually disavowed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), which 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 EID 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, which demanded a statewide ban on oil and gas development in Colorado.
As the paper came under closer scrutiny, one of paper’s co-authors was quietly 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.” (emphasis added)
The DOH states that it consulted an “unpublished 2013 revision to a 2012 working paper” by Cornell University doctoral candidate Elaine L. Hill, which purports that there is a “causal” relationship between natural gas development and low birth rates. As the New York Times explained about this paper,
“The paper would have been an unremarkable draft of a graduate student’s research results had it not been disseminated last week with the help of a public relations firm retained by the nonprofit group New Yorkers Against Fracking and featured at a public forum run in Manhattan by Democrats in the State Senate.
‘I think the courage she is showing today in coming forward and speaking truth to power should be matched by other acts of courage by members of our own state government,’ Sandra Steingraber, distinguished scholar in residence for the department of environmental studies at Ithaca College, said before Hill’s testimony. Steingraber said she believes Hill’s paper should be peer reviewed, but also feels science is having a tough time keeping up with the rush to get new fracking measures in place.’ [Epoch Times]”
The DOH described the paper under the category “Birth Outcomes,” but outside experts interviewed by the New York Times said the paper was “devoid of meaningful data” and a “badly suspect piece of work.” One expert said he would be “amazed if it gets published at a reputable journal.”
Kassotis et al.
This study, published by the Endocrine Society, suggests hydraulic fracturing results in air pollution that will ultimately “disrupt the body’s hormones” and lead to infertility, cancer, deformities and birth defects.
Just after it was published, the medical publication Clinical Advisor noted that the study had “a lack of direct identification of fracking chemicals in the tested water.” But this didn’t stop the researchers 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.”
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 study co-author Susan 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.”
As EID has pointed out, one of the main problems is that the researchers had no way of determining where the endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) they found were coming from. EDCs can be naturally occurring or man-made, and can come from numerous sources. As the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences puts it:
“Endocrine disruptors are naturally occurring compounds or man-made substances that may mimic or interfere with the function of hormones in the body […]These chemicals are found in many of the everyday products we use, including some plastic bottles and containers, liners of metal food cans, detergents, flame retardants, food, toys, cosmetics, and pesticides.”
Further, several chemicals used in agricultural activities could contain EDCs, as even the NRDC has pointed out before:
“Chemicals suspected of acting as endocrine disruptors are found in insecticides, herbicides, fumigants and fungicides that are used in agriculture as well as in the home.”
Interestingly, the authors of the report not only agree, but actually state that the EDCs they examined could be coming from sources other than fracking. From the report:
“Both naturally occurring chemicals and synthetic chemicals from other sources could contribute to the activity observed in the water samples collected in this study” (p. 16).
The report goes on to explain that “agricultural and animal care operations could potentially contribute to the measured activity in Garfield County.”
Curiously, when Nagel 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.” She then kicked off a “crowdfunding” project, complete with inflammatory claims like these:
“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.”
Nagel’s fundraising campaign included a talk – titled “What the Frack?” – at a brewery in downtown Columbia. She also made a public appeal for funding to the community of “ban fracking” activists like Mark Ruffalo, founder of the anti-drilling group Water Defense; Yoko Ono, founder of Artists Against Fracking; and Josh Fox, director of the anti-fracking documentary Gasland.
Bamberger et al.
This 2012 study by Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald of Cornell University purports that chemicals from fracking are harming farm animals. However, they, too, fail 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, the duo 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.”
Oswald and Bamberger are heavily involved in the “ban fracking” campaign out of 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.”
They even published book together that claims, “fracking poses a dire threat to the air we breathe, the water we drink, and even our food supply.”
What about the studies finding no credible public health threat?
While the report does include a number of reports that find no credible health impact it often dismisses them outright. But for those who want the facts:
- A study by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) found that air emissions in the Marcellus shale significantly decreased in 2012. In fact, according to DEP Secretary Chris Abruzzo, the “across-the-board emission reductions … can be attributed to the steady rise in the production and development of natural gas, the greater use of natural gas, lower allowable emissions limits, installation of control technology and the deactivation of certain sources.”
- 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.”
- A study on emissions in the Barnett Shale by the Houston based ToxStrategies concluded, using data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), that there is no credible health risk associated with shale development. As it states: “The analyses demonstrate that, for the extensive number of VOCs measured, shale gas production activities have not resulted in community-wide exposures to those VOCs at levels that would pose a health concern.”
- 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.”
- A 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.”
- The Colorado Department of Public Health installed air quality monitors at a well site that activists complained about and concluded in its study of the data: “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.”
- A study by the Texas Department of Health used physical (blood levels) evidence to determine if there was a relationship between air emissions and the residents’ health. The researchers concluded there was no connection.
- A draft report by Public Health England (PHE), an executive agency of the UK’s Department of Health, concluded: “The currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction are low if the operations are properly run and regulated.”
- The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) conducted air monitoring northeast Pennsylvania and concluded that the state “did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” A similar report for southwestern Pennsylvania came to the same conclusion.
- A peer-reviewed study looking at cancer incidence rates in several Pennsylvania counties found “no evidence that childhood leukemia was elevated in any county after [hydraulic fracturing] commenced.”
- 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 “have dramatically reduced emissions across Pennsylvania.”
- EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy has touted benefits of natural gas in reducing air pollution, saying, “The pollution that I’m looking at is traditional pollutants as well as carbon. And 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.”
It’s no surprise that the NRDC released a report just yesterday highlighting many of the same discredited studies that appeared in the DOH report. After all, the DOH report is something the NRDC, or any anti-fracking group for that matter, would probably write. That Governor Cuomo clearly is more interested in appeasing “ban fracking” groups is apparent from the series of retweets he made throughout the afternoon from anti-fracking groups cheering his decision.
For an administration that promised to rely on “the science” of fracking, Cuomo’s team instead chose to kowtow to Yoko Ono, Mark Ruffalo, and all of the environmental pressure groups in New York. The dubious basis upon which the continued fracking ban rests is a testament to that point.