Earthworks recently released a report called Californians at Risk: An Analysis of Health Threats from Oil and Gas Pollution in Two Communities. This title sounds ominous, but based on the track record of Earthworks – a Washington, DC activist group that has declared a “war on fracking” – it makes sense to be skeptical.
Earthworks’ library of research includes such titles as: Blackout in the Gas Patch, Up in Flames, Reckless Endangerment While Fracking the Eagle Ford and On Shaky Ground. At first glance, these may look like academic studies; in reality, they are simply anti-energy talking points dressed up to resemble glossy reports. Earthworks’ attack on California’s energy industry is no different.
In this report, Earthworks uses air sampling data and surveys of a handful of local residents in the California communities of Lost Hills and Upper Ojai, all too suggest that there is a dire health threat in the Golden State. Unfortunately – or, perhaps, fortunately for the millions of Californians who call this state home – the reality is far different.
Below, we take a closer look at the specific flaws in the report.
Earthworks: “Despite the fact that so many citizens reside close to oil and gas facilities, neither the industry nor state regulatory agencies have adequately investigated the impacts on public health. No extensive studies have been conducted to determine how communities and people living close to oil and gas in California are affected.” (p. 4)
FACT: State and local agencies in California are already required to identify and mitigate environmental impacts of their actions by virtue of the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) of 1970. The oil and gas industry, like any other California industry, must comply with the demands of CEQA.
To claim that there have been no studies on oilfield operations and their effects on surrounding residents is demonstrably false. Scientific studies are done regularly, and the list continues to grow. This list of recent studies doesn’t include the legally mandated and peer-reviewed Independent Scientific Assessment of Well Stimulation Treatments released earlier this month by the California Council on Science and Technology. Nor does it include the recent draft EIR released by the California Department of Conservation, which found the impacts from fracking and other well stimulation to be “less than significant.”
Energy development in California is heavily regulated under a tapestry of state and federal laws, which includes the regulation of air emissions. In fact, air quality mandates in California existed even before the federal Clean Air Act. The Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) regulates all downhole activity and surface equipment, and the state’s Air Quality Management Districts (AQMD) require closed-loop systems to prevent the release of vapor and air emissions.
As an example, in Los Angeles, the energy industry’s air emissions are regulated by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), and the industry’s operations are subject to regulation by 18 other government agencies as well. The protection of public health is foremost among these agencies’ priorities.
Earthworks should also know that Kern County – where most oil and natural gas production in California takes place — is doing a thorough overhaul of its ordinances, coupled with a massive Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that will address all impacts of oil and gas operations.
Finally, California is home to the Inglewood Oil Field near Los Angeles, the largest urban oil field in the United States. In 2008, the owner of the Inglewood field and other landowners proactively sought an independent environmental review and increased regulations by asking the County of Los Angeles to establish the Baldwin Hills Community Standards District (CSD) – regulations specifically for the communities surrounding the field.
Key provisions of the CSD, as detailed by operator Freeport-McMoRan Oil and Gas, include:
- Community Advisory Panel (CAP) – Designed to enhance communication between community representatives, the county, and our company.
- Website and Annual Newsletter – Designed to provide the public updated information on oil field operations.
- Ombudsperson – New position dedicated to responding to the public’s questions and concerns related to the oil field operations.
- Landscaping Plan (Sight) – Designed to create a visual screening along the outer boundary of the CSD and along public streets that run through the oil field.
- Quiet Mode Plan (Sound) – Identifies methods to prevent, reduce, or mitigate the noise generated by drilling at night.
- Air Monitoring Plan (Smell) – Requires installations of automatic alarms to detect if odorous natural gases exceed CSD thresholds.
- Community Alert Notification System (Safety) – Automatic notification system in the event of an emergency related to operations.
- Annual Drilling Plan – Identifies future oil field drilling activity and enhances the public’s awareness of future planned activities.
Finally, in 2012, the County of Los Angeles and then-owner of the oilfield commissioned an extensive year-long study, as part of a legal settlement, on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing in the field (though fracking is not occurring there). The study closely examined 13 potential adverse impacts, from air and water quality issues, to seismic activity and subsidence. The peer-reviewed study found no cause for concern. Indeed, the Inglewood Oil Field may be the most regulated and best-understood oil field in the entire United States.
No doubt much more study will be done on health impacts related to energy development in California, and the industry will welcome these results from any scientifically valid source. But it is baseless to suggest that no study has been done, or to suggest that DOGGR has “failed to address the negative consequences of oil and gas development throughout the state without adequate oversight” or that regulators have “failed to provide adequate emphasis on protection of human life and natural resources.”
Earthworks: “In 2013 in Pennsylvania and Texas, Earthworks performed exploratory health assessments of oil and gas development using multiple data collection techniques including a survey and air quality samples. For this study of community members in Lost Hills, Kern County, and Upper Ojai, Ventura County from May to September 2014, Earthworks – in partnership with Clean Water Fund – used the same methodology.” (p. 13; emphasis added)
FACTS: This is the opening to the report’s Methodology section, and it lets us know that those interested in air quality in Upper Ojai and Lost Hills should approach Earthworks’ claims with considerable skepticism.
Earthworks admits to using the same methodology that was shown to be flawed in several previous studies. Regulators themselves have cataloged the deficiencies in Earthworks’ brand of analysis. The key problem was identified more than a year ago when EID debunked the group’s Eagle Ford report (which was co-authored by – surprise – Wilma Subra, the “reviewer” of the California report).
In the current report, Earthworks employs the same tactics: the report includes charts (p. 20-21) that compare the “snapshot” taken by Earthworks’ researchers, and then comparing concentrations to the long-term Effective Screening Levels (ESLs). This is not scientifically sound, as it presumes that short-term measurements are indicative of decades-long exposures. As the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said in response to the Eagle Ford report:
Overall, the monitoring data provide evidence that shale play activity does not significantly impact air quality or pose a threat to human health. The TCEQ has a vigorous, effective enforcement operation in the Eagle Ford Shale, and when problems are detected, the TCEQ makes sure they are rapidly fixed. (emphasis added)
There is no reason to believe that the story would be any different here in California, either from a data analysis point of view or a regulatory/mitigation point of view. The report spends three pages (pp. 22-24) listing potential health impacts of detected chemical compounds, all without establishing that these compounds are present in concentrations necessary to have long-term impacts. Additionally, the Earthworks report is unable to link these compounds with energy development, but rather insinuates a connection. Once again, that’s not science.
Earthworks: “The results showed that the communities of Upper Ojai in Ventura County, and Lost Hills in Kern County, are being exposed to air contaminants that are typically associated with air emissions from oil and gas development. These contaminants may negatively affect the health of the communities and pose a serious risk of long-term exposure. However, the frequency and number of samples was limited; therefore, the results of this investigation must be viewed as a snapshot of air emissions and a clear warning sign of problems, not as generalizable results.” (p. 4; emphasis added)
FACT: The jump from “a snapshot of air emissions” to “a clear warning sign of problems” is a rhetorical sleight of hand that wouldn’t pass muster in a high school chemistry – or English — class.
As we will detail below, conflating this “snapshot” to long-term exposure levels to detected compounds is fatal to this analysis.
It should be noted that Earthworks and Clean Water Action based their conclusions in part on imaging from a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) camera borrowed from Tillman’s anti-industry consulting firm ShaleTest. The “conclusions prior to research” nature of ShaleTest is clear from the first page of the group’s website:
“ShaleTest is a non-profit organization that collects environmental data and provides testing to lower income families and communities that are negatively impacted by shale oil and gas extraction.” [emphasis added]
Moreover, ShaleTest’s FLIR camera has been used to develop misleading reports, conflating data to conform to its predetermined conclusions. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality at one point called ShaleTest’s methodology “not scientifically appropriate.”
With regard to its FLIR camera-related claims, Earthworks got off to a shaky start. The press release on the report makes the following claim:
“Although oil and gas development has occurred in California for generations, until Californians at Risk: An analysis of health threats from oil and gas pollution in two communities, no one in California — private or government — had recorded and analyzed its air pollution using infrared video and then identified the individual constituents of that pollution and the health risks associated with it.”
The very next sentence admits that this is false:
“Infrared video, taken with a FLIR camera, is the same technology that oil and gas companies and government regulators use to detect air pollution leaks and violations.” [emphasis added]
Yes: both the industry and air quality regulators in California use FLIR cameras and other technologies to identify leaks.
As noted above, Earthworks has done a series of similar studies, marrying FLIR imaging with air sampling and surveys, all of which have been exposed as deeply flawed. The tool may work as advertised; the analysis should be met with suspicion.
Earthworks: “A special thank you to Rosanna Esparza at Clean Water Action/Clean Water Fund…Thank you to ShaleTest and Calvin Tillman for the use of the FLIR camera, and their guidance on community air testing. Thank you to Citizens for Responsible Oil and Gas (CFROG), for their knowledge and experience in Ventura County…A final thank you to our reviewers for their expertise in reviewing this report and our findings…” (p. 2)
FACT: This section helps us understand the other flaws in the report, because this list of reviewers and influencers shows how unscientific this enterprise was from the very beginning.
- The authors, who are two activists on Earthworks’ staff, thank various members of two anti-fracking groups – Clean Water Action and Citizens for Responsible Oil and Gas – noting that they materially contributed to the project.
- The authors also thank former DISH, TX Mayor Calvin Tillman, who gained notoriety in anti-fracking circles thanks to his prominent billing in Josh Fox’s knowingly dishonest and thoroughly debunked films, Gasland and Gasland I Tillman travels the country, and recently did a tour of California, to deliver anti-energy messages to “ban fracking” groups.
- Finally, in thanking its reviewers, Earthworks is trying to imply that this analysis underwent scientifically rigorous peer review. Earthworks, however, fails to disclose that at least three of the four members of this panel have been directly involved in anti-fracking work with Earthworks previously. They include Wilma Subra, a nationally prominent anti-fracking “warrior” who is cited in the study itself (as an environmental chemist and not as an activist) and also appeared in Gasland, and Nadia Stenzor, who is actually on Earthworks’ staff, helping to coordinate Earthworks’ “Oil & Gas Accountability Project.”
So Earthworks chose fellow activists to write the analysis and others to review it. This “activist review thyself” approach – which recently fooled New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker — is a far cry from established standards of genuine peer review, and is not something thoughtful Californians should allow to substitute for rigorous and critical analysis.
As the Bakersfield Californian reported about Earthworks’ analysis:
The group conceded that the limited frequency and number of air samples provided just a snapshot of air emissions, not a general conclusion…
‘We can’t say anything definitive, but we believe there is a correlation between the emissions we’re detecting and the symptoms those communities are experiencing,’ said Jhon Arbelaez, an organizer for Earthworks and co-author of the report.
Arbelaez and his co-author have stated nothing more than a hypothesis, and establishing a correlation (never mind causation) is never even attempted. The report is full of disclaimers that call the data into question. For example:
The project did not investigate additional factors that can influence health conditions or cause symptoms, such as those included in assessments conducted using control groups in non-impacted areas or investigations into the comparative health histories of participants. (p. 16) [emphasis added]
The medical information identified by respondents of both communities in the surveys cannot be directly attributed to oil and gas production, but the reported symptoms are consistent with health impacts associated with exposure to the compounds detected during air sampling. (p. 29) [emphasis added]
Although a complete picture of community-wide impacts cannot be obtained due to the number of surveys collected, the information begins to fill some of the data gaps that exist, helping residents identify a potential source of the negative health impacts they are suffering.”(p. 30) [emphasis added]
It is no secret that Kern County and the San Joaquin Valley are known to have air quality that falls below federal standards. Kern, for example, is a non-attainment area under the Clean Air Act. That Earthworks made no effort to control for or take into account the many reasons for this reality, including Kern’s county’s topography, automobiles, and other industries, tells us what we need to know about the group’s motivations.
As noted above, there is a wealth of data available on air quality not only in the communities focused on in this report, but in all communities in California where oil and gas development takes place. “Helping” residents identify a “potential” source of health impacts that they report is the very definition of scaremongering — and the residents of Upper Ojai and Lost Hills deserve better.