No doubt concerned about recent reports linking increased natural gas consumption in the United States to falling greenhouse gas emissions, as well as a rash of stories highlighting industry efforts to convert rigs and other wellsite equipment over to natural gas – reducing emissions even further – anti-shale activists have been working hard to score some press coverage for a new paper about natural gas development and air. The report, available here, was produced by The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), a Colorado-based group led by Theo Colborn, one of the stars of Josh Fox’s anti-industry film Gasland.
TEDX says it took air quality samples near a newly developed natural gas pad in western Colorado, reviewed the results, and determined the “human and environmental health impacts … should be examined further given that the natural gas industry is now operating in close proximity to human residences and public lands.” For the activists, this is just the latest evidence that oil and gas development, and especially hydraulic fracturing, poses an unacceptable risk to public health, and thus should be stopped.
Of course, in reality, the paper doesn’t actually say that – and provides no evidence in support of that case. Instead, the paper cleverly presents opinion and speculation in a way that, the authors hope, will bait news reporters into writing scary-sounding stories about the industry. Here are the details:
No connection to gas wells
Starting with the title, and throughout the paper, the authors insinuate that natural gas wells are responsible for what they found in their air quality samples. But then they make the following admission:
“The chemicals reported in this exploratory study cannot, however, be causally connected to natural gas operations.” p. 8
Strangely, the authors don’t bother to explain why a study about air quality near natural gas operations failed to connect air quality with natural gas operations. Perhaps they wanted to avoid a detailed discussion about why only two days of “baseline” samples were taken, and why an inadequate baseline could result in natural gas wells being blamed for pollution that actually came from other sources, including Interstate-70, located just 1.1 miles away.
If this methodology sounds familiar, that’s because the authors of another highly criticized paper on gas wells in western Colorado also decided the best location to sample was less than a mile from I-70, so exhaust fumes from thousands of cars and trucks could be blamed instead on natural gas development. Blaming gas wells for tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks was also the modus operandi of another Gasland star, Al Armendariz, the author of a discredited 2009 paper that claimed emissions from oil and gas development in the Dallas Fort-Worth area were higher than emissions from all the region’s motor vehicles. Armendariz later became the U.S. EPA’s Region 6 Administrator, and then resigned in April 2012 after he was caught on camera saying his philosophy as a regulator was to “crucify” natural gas operators. He now works for an activist group, the Sierra Club, that wants to eliminate the oil and gas industry.
Safe air quality readings
After conceding that the TEDX paper makes no connection between natural gas wells and air quality, the authors make another admission:
“The concentrations at which these chemicals were detected in the air are far less than U.S. government safety standards…” p. 11
So, a study about air quality near natural gas operations also failed to find any violations of air quality standards. Instead, the authors just argue that in their opinion, they don’t believe those government standards are good enough. In fact, the authors provide no evidence of actual health impacts tied to the gas wells they studied, and their only source for challenging those government safety standards is another paper co-written by Theo Colborn, which doesn’t have anything to do with natural gas development.
Since this paper presents no evidence of unsafe air quality readings that can be blamed on natural gas wells, it’s conclusions really come down to the opinions of the authors and their employer, TEDX. A quick tour of the TEDX website shows those opinions are more ideological than scientific:
“All meaningful environmental oversight and regulation of the natural gas production was removed by the executive branch and Congress … [T]he gas industry is steamrolling over vast land segments in the West. … From the air it appears as a spreading, cancer-like network of dirt roads over vast acreage, contributing to desertification.”
So, TEDX is an organization that has a very negative opinion of the industry, and even advertises this anti-industry bias on its website. No wonder the authors of the TEDX paper were undaunted by the lack of evidence to support their insinuations: their minds were already made up.
It’s also worth noting that one of TDEX’s major benefactors, the New York Community Trust, also has some strong opinions on the subject. The NYCT currently funds a number of groups opposed to natural gas development, and according to the group’s website, it has given TEDX at least $425,000 since 2005. In April, NYCT said the following things about hydraulic fracturing and shale development while boasting about the money it had given to anti-industry lobbying groups:
“You’ve probably heard the horror stories from Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Texas about poisoned wells, sickened communities, and flammable tap water caused by horizontal hydraulic fracturing. … In other states, unknowing families drank and showered in this water and suffered a range of ailments, including permanent brain damage. … When you’re dealing with flammables, toxic chemicals, and drinking water for millions, the potential for disaster is great.”
So, the TEDX paper was written by a team of researchers who have already decided for themselves that hydraulic fracturing is unsafe, and one of their biggest funders also believes hydraulic fracturing is unsafe. Are we expected to believe that the conclusions of this paper were ever in doubt?
As for NYCT’s “horror stories,” let’s compare this panic-inducing rhetoric with the February 2012 congressional testimony of President Obama’s Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, a former U.S. Senator and Attorney General from Colorado who oversees oil and gas development on roughly 700 million acres of federal mineral estate:
“There’s a lot of hysteria that takes place now with respect to hydraulic fracking, and you see that happening in many of the states. … My point of view, based on my own study of hydraulic fracking, is that it can be done safely and has been done safely hundreds of thousands of times.”
Wrong on the basics
Besides the obvious anti-industry bias, the lead author of this paper – zoologist, former World Wildlife Fund employee and TEDX president Theo Colborn – is also just plain wrong about the regulatory safeguards in place designed to protect public health. According to the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, which published a news item on the TEDX paper, Colborn believes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “has been locked out of scrutiny of the oil and gas industry by the 2005 Clean Water Act exemptions enacted by the Bush administration.”
On the TEDX website, Colborn elaborates in a video presentation, which further claims the George W. Bush administration imposed “a moratorium on the use of federal environmental laws to regulate natural gas activity.”
Really? Let’s check those assertions against a report from the U.S. Department of Energy and the state-led Ground Water Protection Council, which was compiled during both the Bush and Obama administrations:
“The development and production of oil and gas in the U.S., including shale gas, are regulated under a complex set of federal, state, and local laws that address every aspect of exploration and operation. All of the laws, regulations, and permits that apply to conventional oil and gas exploration and production activities also apply to shale gas development.” p. ES-2
“A series of federal laws governs most environmental aspects of shale gas development. For example, the Clean Water Act regulates surface discharges of water associated with shale gas drilling and production, as well as storm water runoff from production sites. The Safe Drinking Water Act regulates the underground injection of fluids from shale gas activities. The Clean Air Act limits air emissions from engines, gas processing equipment, and other sources associated with drilling and production. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) requires that exploration and production on federal lands be thoroughly analyzed for environmental impacts.” p. ES-3
When the lead author of the TEDX paper makes statements about natural gas regulation that are so completely at odds with what federal and state regulators have been saying for years, it undermines TEDX’s credibility and makes it clear that that ideology, rather than evidence, is driving the group’s research.
Playing to the media
When you add up the TEDX paper’s flaws, it’s hard to see what scientific purpose it serves. It includes air quality measurements, but makes no connection between those measurements and nearby wellsites. Those measurements also show air quality levels are safe. The rest of the paper is mostly unsupported opinion and speculation from a group with a clear agenda against development.
So what’s the real motive behind TEDX’s “research” agenda, and who is the real audience for its work? Theo Colborn herself made that pretty clear in March while speaking at an event hosted by another anti-industry activist group:
“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.” (at 23:25)
Ask yourself – is that the voice of an objective, independent scientist, or someone who manufactures talking points for a PR campaign against domestic oil and gas production?