“New” Health Study Compendium Is Repackaging Of The Same Old Discredited Fracking Studies


Original post from Nicole Jacobs, Energy in Depth. April 11th, 2019

literature review of studies that have unsuccessfully attempted to show fracking is negatively impacting health is getting some media attention based on its claim that air quality monitoring and modeling may not capture the full picture of oil and gas development impacts.

And despite the authors’ best efforts to show otherwise, this compendium simply repackages these discredited studies that fail to include hard evidence to support their claims and presents them to media from a new(ish) angle – a strategy that was laid out by one of the report’s co-authors way back in 2012 and which has since been implemented multiple times.

Compendium’s co-author literally wrote the book on how to market fracking health impacts without evidence.

Seth Shonkoff, the executive director of Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy and a co-author of the report, authored a strategy memo in 2012 for the 11th Hour Project – which funds a number of prominent anti-fracking groups, including Earthworks, Food & Water Watch, Friends of the Earth, New Yorkers Against Fracking, and the Post Carbon Institute –  that not only acknowledged there was no hard evidence linking fracking to health impacts, but explained how to use media to push the research anyway.

“[T]he development of a scientifically rigorous body of evidence of environmental health threats is crucial to the engagement in litigious battles, to drive regulation, and to hold the oil and gas industry accountable for their actions. Indeed, an enormous body of studies was an integral component in the struggle to bring the tobacco industry under regulation and it will likely take many authoritative studies do the same to the fracking industry.” (p. 17; emphasis added)

[T]he effect of ‘one-off’ projects, such as a single scientific study out of a university destined for an academic journal, will fade more quickly than a study informed and engaged with by impacted communities (Robinson 2012), popularized in the media, and translated into reports and other materials for popular consumption.” (p. 16; emphasis added)

In other words, Shonkoff emphasized the importance of quantity over quality to get these messages out to the masses through media headlines.

And while that strategy has generated headlines – as this recent compendium was able to do – it hasn’t gone over well in actual communities near shale development.

In fact, during his 2017 testimony before the Zoning Hearing Board in Mount Pleasant Township, Pennsylvania, Shonkoff presented some of these epidemiological studies that did not show causation and declined to discuss the numerous studies that took direct air measurements and found no elevated risks. In turn, the board dismissed his testimony, explaining:

“The Board finds Dr. Shonkoff’s testimony to be equivocal, not properly founded, and not credible. As such the Board has disregarded Dr. Shonkoff’s testimony.” (emphasis added)

The “Keep It In the Ground” agenda ties are strong in the compendium.

At least one of the compendium’s authors, the research and even the journal where it was published are riddled with ties to “Keep It In the Ground” activist organizations and foundations that fund them.

PSEHE, for example, was founded by Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University professor and  documented anti-fracking activist who has called his research a “form of advocacy,” and who admitted that he deliberately includes “advocacy-laced words and phrases in [his] papers” and that his research projects begin with a conclusion already partially conceived, saying:

“I’d be lying if I told you I went into every one of those with an entirely objective, blank opinion.”

The compendium was published in the Annual Review of Public Health, which receives financial support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.  EID has documented numerous examples of the foundation funding reports that aim to show connections between health and fracking, but fall short based on evidence. The RWJF also has funded groups like Damascus Citizens for Sustainability that is vehemently fighting fracking in the Marcellus Shale, and at least two of RWJF’s board members also sit on the World Wildlife Fund board – a group that maintains  it is “against the use of fracking to extract shale gas – or any other ‘unconventional’ fuels – from the ground.”

Further, at least some of the research included in the compendium is also authored by researchers with questionable agendas, including Wilma Subra, who has been regularly aligned with Earthworks; Brian Schwartz, a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute,an anti-fossil fuel organization that has called fracking a “virus”; and well-known anti-shale activist Theo Colborn.

The compendium includes multiple studies that have already been discredited.

To be clear, the paper is merely a review of other peer-reviewed studies — many of which have their own problems and shortcomings.

One of the studies included in the overview was authored by Prof. Lisa McKenzie, which should raise some red flags right away.  EID has done extensive coverage on the various McKenzie studies, and how they are effective in generating headlines but are scarce on actual findings.  Her 2012 study included in this compendium claimed to show “air pollution caused by fracking may lead to health problems for those who live near natural gas drilling sites.”

But the report had so many flaws that the research team was fired by the Colorado county that commissioned it almost a year before the study was published. Garfield County environmental health chief Jim Rada also disavowed the paper for its “significant” data limitations.  The study overexaggerated emissions from the oil and gas sector by failing to account for exhaust fumes from a major interstate highway less than one mile away.  The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) has been a noted critic of McKenzie’s work since.

Another of the studies (Macey et al., 2012) used a “bucket brigade” method of having residents collect air samples – a collection method that has raised serious concerns over validity. And Casey et al., 2014 claimed that elevated levels of radon in homes in Pennsylvania were from “the development of thousands of unconventional natural gas wells in Pennsylvania over the past 10 years” – despite the highest concentrations of radon being found in counties with no oil and gas development.

CDPHE separately analyzed another of the studies used in the compendium in its own review of relevant epidemiological literature. The department determined that the report, which reviewed links between shale gas development and health impacts through a community survey in Pennsylvania, was “low-quality evidence based on the strengths and limitations.”

Several other studies reviewed in the compendium were also included in another report by environmental research group Resources for the Future. In its review, RFF analyzed the quality of 32 epidemiological studies that deal with health impacts and oil and gas operations. Researchers found significant limitations in each:

“…though many epidemiological studies used robust statistical methods to estimate changes in health outcomes associated with unconventional oil and gas development, all had weaknesses and many had significant shortcomings.”

“Overall, we find that the literature does not provide strong evidence regarding specific health impacts and is largely unable to establish mechanisms for any potential health effects.”

“Due to the nature of the data and research methodologies, the studies are unable to assess the mechanisms of any health impacts (i.e., whether a certain impact is caused by air pollution, stress, water pollution, or another burden). Even where good evidence is offered for a link between unconventional oil and gas development and health, the causal factor(s) driving this association are unclear.”

State regulators have studied this issue.

It’s unnecessary to try to decipher possible health impacts from oil and gas operations, because health regulators have already done their own extensive analysis.

EID released a health report last year that reviewed CDPHE’s own comprehensive study on air quality and emissions from oil and gas.  The study is one of the recommendations put forward by Colorado’s 2015 Oil and Gas Task Force organized by then-Gov. John Hickenlooper.

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.”

CDPHE’s efforts are ongoing and an updated study from its continued monitoring and analysis is due to be released later this year, after several delays.

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