Study limitations included a lack of direct identification of fracking chemicals in the tested water, the researchers acknowledged. They called for more comprehensive sampling of drilling sites in Garfield County to determine whether natural gas drilling is contributing to elevated EDC activity in ground and surface water.
As we said in our original blog post below, the researchers pushed this story far and wide to get headlines that would link hydraulic fracturing to hormone disruption, when in reality they had no way of making that link. Nice to see that some publications are willing to print the facts — even if it was buried under the exact sort of headline that the study authors wanted.
UPDATE (12/19/2013; 10:10am ET): An article in the Columbia (Mo.) Daily Tribune chronicles EID’s criticisms of the study, acknowledging the provisions of the Clean Water Act that apply to shale development (contrary to what the study’s author claimed), and that the chemicals studied could come from many sources — not just “fracking.”
Equally important, the lead author of the study — Susan Nagel — may have revealed that her views on hydraulic fracturing are, shall we say, far from disinterested. From the Daily Tribune:
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. (emphasis added)
Calling the EPA “impotent” and unable to conduct “normal” monitoring of shale development is not only untrue, but it also has nothing to do with a study that was billed as an examination of risk from oilfield chemicals. It’s a qualitative statement that strongly suggests an interest in expanding the regulatory regime that covers the industry. That’s typically called advocacy.
—Original post, Dec. 16, 2013—
A new study published by the Endocrine Society suggests hydraulic fracturing will ultimately “disrupt the body’s hormones” and lead to widespread infertility, cancer, deformities and birth defects. But a closer look at the study reveals a very different picture, based on numerous flaws in the methodology.
Here are five key takeaways from the report:
FACT I: Conclusions from samples where spills have occurred.
The study focuses on water samples from five areas in Garfield County, Colo., that are known to have had “a spill or incident related to natural gas drilling processes” within the past six years. These data are compared against a small number of samples from “drilling sparse locations” in the same county and a “drilling absent location in Boone County.” That’s Boone County, Missouri, by the way.
We all know spills are bad and can cause problems, so what exactly did they expect to find? If this were about advancing the state of knowledge about the risks of development, the study would have focused on areas with oil and gas development where no known incidents had occurred. That might actually tell us something relevant about safety, since it would help determine if there are any unknown impacts that we should take care to safeguard against.
Instead, they investigated a known problem area and declared it a problem area. Real cutting edge stuff.
FACT II: No method to explain where the EDCs are coming from.
If drawing conclusions from spill site samples isn’t bad enough, the researchers also aren’t even sure where the endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are coming from – yet they still blame fracking. 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 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, “agricultural and animal care operations could potentially contribute to the measured activity in Garfield County.” Despite all of that, the press strategy was to claim it was all due to fracking.
FACT III: Deliberately exaggerates number of chemicals used during HF.
The report boldly proclaims:
“Hundreds of products containing more than 750 chemicals and components are potentially used throughout the extraction process, including over one hundred known or suspected endocrine disrupting chemicals” (p. 2).
FracFocus.org contains more than 55,000 disclosure forms for actual well sites across the country. There isn’t a single one that has nearly that many additives listed. Larger completions have additive lists that might number in the dozens. Could it be that the authors were deliberately inflating the number of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing?
FACT IV: Falsely claims exemptions from federal laws.
Right off the bat, the report rehashes a favorite anti-fracking talking point that has been thoroughly discredited: the idea that oil and gas producers are somehow exempt from federal laws. From the media advisory:
“Fracking is exempt from federal regulations to protect water quality, but spills associated with natural gas drilling can contaminate surface, ground and drinking water.”
The U.S. Government Accountability Office set the record straight on this erroneous claim, demonstrating that no fewer than eight federal laws, including the Clean Water Act, apply to shale development:
“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 that 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.” – GAO, 2012 (emphasis added)
Why would a study billed as “scientific” assert that a process like hydraulic fracturing is unregulated, when the opposite is clearly true?
FACT V: Acknowledges technical advice from anti-fracking activist.
The report’s acknowledgements section includes a shout out to Ms. Theo Colborn, the author of her own debunked study on hydraulic fracturing and air quality. Ms. Colborn provided “technical advice” and “comments on the manuscript,” according to the study.
Just as a refresher: Ms. Colborn runs the Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), which claims the industry is “steamrolling over vast land segments in the West,” and has referred to oil and gas operations as “cancer-like.”
Ms. Colborn is also the one who admitted that a goal of anti-fracking activism needs to be working with the press to get the most destructive narrative about hydraulic fracturing into the headlines. Speaking at an anti-industry activist event recently, Colborn stated:
“Somehow, some way, we need to get drilling and all the other sources of the pollution into the headlines, along with fracking. We’ve got to work on the media on this.”
The authors of the Endocrine Society report were clearly playing for headlines here — essentially taking Colborn’s advice to “work on the media on this” to heart. The entire study is littered with “mays” and “coulds,” and yet the research team’s message to reporters was inflammatory and definitive: “Fracking Chemicals Disrupt Hormone Function.”
It’s difficult to see the utility of this deeply flawed study as a means of better understanding the risks and benefits of shale development. But if the goal was to get fracking “into the headlines,” as one of the technical advisers for the report has requested, then it will likely and unfortunately be a success.