A new Environment America “report” uses a couple old anti-fracking tactics — exploitation of children and blatant misinformation from activist studies — to try to stoke fears and rally support for its extremist call to ban fracking nationwide.
The ominously-titled “Dangerous and Close: Fracking Puts the Nation’s Most Vulnerable People at Risk” finds there are nearly 2,000 child care facilities, better than 1,300 schools, nearly 250 nursing care providers and more than 100 hospitals within a one-mile radius of fracked wells in the nine states examined, stating:
“Given the scale and severity of fracking’s impacts, fracking should be prohibited wherever possible and existing wells should be shut down beginning with those near institutions that serve our most vulnerable populations.”
But EA offers up absolutely no new original research to prove its claim that the “closer you are to fracking, the more susceptible you are to suffering negative health effects.” Instead relies on a virtual “greatest hits” of debunked studies and talking points to try to support its topline finding.
Here are the report’s most egregious claims, followed by the facts.
Environment America Claim: “Fracking creates a range of threats to our health, including creating toxic air pollution that can reduce lung function even among healthy people, trigger asthma attacks, and has been linked to premature death. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to fracking’s health risks.”
REALITY: There is actually ample evidence that fracking is improving overall air quality and health by reducing major pollutants such as fine particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. Furthermore, all three studies EA singles out as “evidence” close proximity to fracking sites can lead to the myriad of adverse health effects have been thoroughly debunked.
EA claims one study (McKenzie et al., 2012) shows “residents living within one-half mile of natural gas wells” in Garfield County, Colo., were “exposed to air pollutants that increased their risk of illness.” This study just so happens to be the most infamous of a slew of debunked anti-fracking papers by Lisa McKenzie of the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH).
Not only has EID debunked this study — pointing out it exaggerated emissions from well development by at least 10 times, failed to take into account exhaust fumes from a major interstate highway less than a mile away, and failed to note the cancer risk detected was not above the national average, just to name a few major flaws — the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and Garfield County’s environmental health chief Jim Rada have also disavowed the paper. Even McKenzie herself has conceded the study’s flaws.
EA also singles out the recent Johns A. Hopkins asthma study, claiming it found “Pennsylvanians with asthma who live near fracked oil and gas wells had more asthma flare-ups that required medical care than did patients who lived farther away.” But EID has pointed out that the study failed to establish any actual proof linking asthma exacerbations to fracking. Also, state health data actually showed asthma-related hospitalizations were actually lower in shale counties than in counties with no oil and gas development.
The final study (Rabinowitz et al.) singled out be EA claims Washington County, Pa., residents “relying on well water found increased rates of adverse health symptoms — including skin conditions and upper respiratory ailments — reported by those living within 1 kilometer (0.6 miles) of a gas well site, compared with those living more than 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) away.”
But an EID review of the research found that this report is the result of data collected by an activist group who paid individuals to give complete surveys on health symptoms. The study also found no hard evidence proving its claims and relies on a number of anti-fracking studies that have been thoroughly debunked, or have been found to have major flaws in their methodologies (gee, that sounds familiar). There had also been no reports of air or water impacts in Washington County at the time of that study.
Considering these are the only three health studies EA chose to focus on, one would have to surmise it feels they present the most convincing evidence to support its claim that proximity to fracking leads to health problems. But fact is, each study has been thoroughly discredited.
Environment America Claim: “Pollution levels near wells are often high.”
REALITY: Again, each of the studies Environment America uses an example to support this claim have been thoroughly debunked, while numerous studies showing low emissions at well sites are ignored by EA.
The first study used by EA to support its claim found elevated levels of benzene and “other toxic or cancer causing compounds” at playgrounds near fracked wells in North Texas. First of all, the study was conducted by ShaleTest, which is “proudly affiliated” with the anti-fracking group Earthworks. It was also headed up by Calvin Tillman, a former mayor of DISH, Tex., and one of the stars of Josh Fox’s Gasland films.
Not surprisingly, EA fails to point out that the highest benzene measurements detected in this study would have to be five times higher to cross the threshold of health concerns. Curiously, the ShaleTest report omits entirely what the short-term threshold actually is.
Another study cited by EA (Warneke et al.) claimed to find “elevated levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in Utah’s Unitah Basin. But a more recent study actually finds VOCs in Unitah Basin are not only lower than previously thought, but that they are half what was estimated, severely weakening any argument activists groups can make about energy development dragging down the region’s air quality.
Similarly, EA claims another study — authored by another Gasland Star, Theo Colborn — found “Weekly tests of air quality 0.7 miles from a well pad in Colorado’s Front Range detected VOCs throughout the year-long study, which spanned multiple stages of well drilling and production.” But a recent Colorado State University study found low emissions along Colorado’s Front Range that are far below safe thresholds.
EA even cites an Earthworks study that claims “A series of 2012 measurements by officials of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) found VOCs levels so high at one fracking location that the officials themselves were forced to stop taking measurements and leave the site because it was too dangerous for them to remain.”
EA fails to mention TCEQ responded to Earthworks’ report by saying the agency has collected “several millions of data points for volatile organic compounds” in the Barnett Shale and Eagle Ford Shale and “Overall, the monitoring data provide evidence that shale play activity does not significantly impact air quality or pose a threat to human health.”
EA also conveniently ignores that the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Colorado Department of Public Health (CDPH) have conducted air monitoring near well sites as well and found no credible risk to public health.
There are at least four other studies that have taken actual air measurements at Marcellus well sites and found emissions that are protective of public health, as well as three such Texas studies to go along with the TCEQ studies.
And according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data, aggregate national emissions of six common air pollutants have fallen an average of 63 percent since 1980 — while our population, energy use and GDP have increased. We’re even one-third of the way toward achieving the emissions reductions we committed to under the Paris climate agreement. These trends have been clearly driven by increased use of natural gas made possible by fracking.
Environment America Claim: “Currently, oil and gas companies are exempt from key provisions in the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.”
REALITY: The notion that the oil and natural gas industry is under-regulated is absolutely absurd narrative activists such as EA continue to push. Oil and gas production activities are subject to eight federal laws: including all relevant provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA); Clean Water Act (CWA); Clean Air Act (CAA); Resources Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA); Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA); the EPCRA; Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA); and Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA). Additionally, the oil and gas production sector is also heavily regulated at the state level.
And for the thousandth time: hydraulic fracturing has never in its nearly 65-year history been regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Language adopted by bipartisan majorities of Congress in 2005 simply reaffirmed that fact. Which begs the question: If a bill never covered you in the first place, how can you be considered “exempt” from it or any of its provisions, as this report claims?
Of course, there is no level of regulation that would be deemed sufficient by a group like Environment America, whose stated goal is to ban fracking.
Environment America Claim: “Exposure to low levels of many of the chemicals used in or generated by oil and gas extraction activities can contribute to a variety of health effects, including asthma, cancer, birth defects, damage to the reproductive system and impaired brain development. For example, children’s long-term exposure to low levels of benzene, generally classified as a carcinogen, also harms respiratory health.”
REALITY: It is essential to understand that toxicity is completely dependent on dose level and exposure.
The mere presence of benzene, for example, does not mean that it is present in toxic levels, as the numerous studies air monitoring studies referred to earlier illustrate.
EA insinuates that even low-level benzene exposure is harmful. But benzene is actually present in countless everyday products such as shampoo, tooth paste, paint, PVC pipes and countless plastic products.
Environment America Claim: “Fracking targets the oil and gas trapped in shale formations… Sometimes that means wells are drilled in rural areas, such as portions of Colorado or North Dakota, and sometimes that wells are in densely populated areas, such as Los Angeles…”
REALITY: There are no fracking or unconventional oil production operations in the city of Los Angeles — none.
EA attempts to justify this claim by employing the common activist tactic of expanding the definition of fracking to encompass all oil and gas related activity:
“Throughout this report, we refer to “fracking” as including all of the activities needed to bring a well into production using high-volume hydraulic fracturing. This includes drilling the well, operating that well, processing the gas or oil produced from that well, and delivering the gas or oil to market. The oil and gas industry often uses a more restrictive definition of “fracking” that includes only the actual moment in the extraction process when rock is fractured – a definition that obscures the broad changes to environmental, health and community conditions that result from the use of high-volume hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas extraction.”
By doing so, activist can lead the public to believe that fracking is encroaching on major populations centers such as L.A., which make it much easier to stoke fears regarding their claimed “dangers” of the process. But discussions about unconventional operations and hydraulic fracturing are simply off-topic when applied to Los Angeles.
Fracking is not used as a completion technique at any of the urban drill sites in the city. All of the facilities recover oil through traditional water flood operations. The report’s attempt to shoehorn fracking and unconventional production into its report proves that it is not engaged in an honest attempt to inform the public.
Environment America Claim: “Because of the health hazard created by radon, Pennsylvania has a long record of radon measurements in homes. An analysis of those radon measurements by researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health found that radon levels have increased in counties with extensive fracking since 2004, and also found elevated radon levels on the first floor of houses located within 12.5 miles of a fracked well.”
REALITY: The Johns Hopkins study EA is referring to actually found the highest concentrations of radon were in areas with no shale development and direct sampling found radon not linked to fracking.
As is the case with so many of the studies EA uses as evidence, the authors merely speculated fracking was the cause.
Environment America Claim: “Oil and gas production at fracked wells releases volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides that contribute to the formation of smog.”
REALITY: Oil and gas production is not a major contributor to ground-level ozone.
As EID has emphasized before, publicly available information demonstrates oil and gas production is not the significant contributor to ozone levels. Vehicle exhaust adds far more non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) — both precursors to ground-level ozone — to the atmosphere than oil and gas production, as data from the EPA’s 2016 Greenhouse Gas Inventory clearly demonstrates.
Not only do oil and gas activities account for just six percent of total NOx emissions, which play more of a role in ground-level formation than VOCs, another recent NOAA report found that “The increased use of natural gas has…led to emissions reductions of NOx (40%) and SO2 (44%).”
The latest EPA data also shows that NOx emissions have declined more than 50 percent since 1990, while non-methane VOCs have declined 48 percent during that timespan.
Environment America Claim: “Contaminants can reach water supplies through faulty well construction, through surface spills, through improper wastewater disposal, or potentially through migration from the shale layer itself.”
REALITY: The EPA’s landmark five-year study confirmed, “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources,” and at least 15 other studies say the fracking process, specifically, have not contaminated groundwater.
Of course, as covered earlier, EA expands the definition of fracking to encompass all oil and gas related activities. So by that all-encompassing definition, it justifies claiming fracking can contaminate grounder. But EPA has actually found the number of cases of groundwater being impacted by development activities that EA misidentifies as “fracking” to be “small” when compared to the hundreds of thousands of shale wells drilled between 2006 and 2012.
“Of the potential mechanisms identified in this report, we found specific instances where one or more mechanisms led to impacts on drinking water resources, including contamination of drinking water wells. The number of identified cases, however, was small compared to the number of hydraulically fractured wells.”(ES-6)
And of course, EA’s claim of “potential migration from the shale layer itself” has been debunked as completely implausible countless times by the scientific community.
As a 2013 report by Gradient states
“[I]t is implausible that the fluids pumped into the target formation would migrate from the target formation through overlying bedrock to reach shallow aquifers.”
“[T]here is no scientific basis for significant upward migration of HF fluid or brine from tight target formations in sedimentary basins.”
EA’s claims in this report — aimed at generating headlines — are quite profound:
“Schools and day care centers should be safe places for kids to play and learn,” said Rachel Richardson, director of Environment America’s Stop Drilling program and co-author of the report. “Unfortunately our research shows far too many kids may be exposed to dirty air and toxic chemicals from fracking right next door.”
The problem is EA’s “research” merely found that there are some schools, nursing homes and hospitals near oil and natural gas development. It made no effort to collect its own data to support their claim that this is leading to adverse health effects.
Instead, it relied on long-debunked studies and tired fear tactics. Maybe that’s why the report’s hyperbolic claim that it “serves as a reminder of the unacceptable dangers of fracking, its potential to harm, and the need to bring this risky form of drilling to an end” was virtually ignored by the media.