You’re a New York filmmaker whose arguments about the supposed dangers of natural gas development have been slowly unraveling since the release of your film about hydraulic fracturing two years ago. Regulators and scientists from across the country have taken issue with the sensationalism you’ve injected into a debate that used to focus on science and facts, debunking all of your favorite arguments along the way. You’ve been arrested for pretending to be accredited media on Capitol Hill.
And then, to top it all off, the Associated Press examines what you’ve said about public health impacts from natural gas development and concludes that your statements are not only unsupported by evidence, but so egregious that actual experts are explicitly refuting them.
What do you do?
If you’re Josh Fox, you apparently double down and issue a public statement complaining that the AP didn’t cite enough examples from your latest documentary — equally divorced from the facts as your previous one — in its assessment of those facts.
In case you missed it, the AP took the time this past weekend to research what critics of hydraulic fracturing have been claiming, and then asked some actual experts for their responses to those claims. The results were reassuring for those of us interested in a fact-based dialogue, but not for those who desperately want to believe, contrary to reality, that hydraulic fracturing is unsafe.
Among the more egregious claims routinely used by opponents is that drilling is linked to increased rates of breast cancer, specifically in north Texas. It’s also the central claim in Josh Fox’s latest film, The Sky is Pink. But according to the AP, the claim just doesn’t mesh with the facts:
Opponents of fracking say breast cancer rates have spiked exactly where intensive drilling is taking place — and nowhere else in the state. The claim is used in a letter that was sent to New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo by environmental groups and by Josh Fox, the Oscar-nominated director of “Gasland,” a film that criticizes the industry. Fox, who lives in Brooklyn, has a new short film called “The Sky is Pink.”
But researchers haven’t seen a spike in breast cancer rates in the area, said David Lee, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
David Risser, an epidemiologist with the Texas Cancer Registry, said in an email that researchers checked state health data and found no evidence of an increase in the counties where the spike supposedly occurred.
And Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a major cancer advocacy group based in Dallas, said it sees no evidence of a spike, either.
When the AP asked Fox for evidence of the spike in breast cancer, he cited a press release that “doesn’t support his claim,” according to the AP, as well as a newspaper report, which an epidemiologist says is “not based on a careful statistical analysis of the data.” Oof!
The AP also told Fox that cancer researchers say breast cancer rates didn’t increase, contrary to his statements. Fox then began to backtrack, resting on a claim that the rate increase was “widely reported” (as if that means anything) and that the issue needs “much deeper study.”
Beaten by the facts (yet again), Josh Fox nonetheless could not let the truth stand. On Tuesday, Fox sent out a lengthy statement in which he angrily claimed the AP story was “biased” and ignored reports from the “award-winning Denton Record Chronicle” – the same paper that has refused to acknowledge the clear conflict of interest with its shale beat reporter, Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe, also being a plaintiff against the natural gas industry.
As you can imagine, it was all downhill from there.
Fox referenced his latest “documentary” – The Sky is Pink – six times in his statement, clearly capitalizing on the attention to plug his movie instead of address the substantive critiques of his claims. With a few minor exceptions, Fox’s statement reads more like a tantrum that the Associated Press didn’t advertise his movie enough. Of course, the AP was too busy getting the facts about the claims made in that movie, choosing to print what’s true instead of what Josh Fox wanted them to print.
Fox’s outrageous outrage was accompanied by some remarks from Sandra Steingraber, to whom Fox refers as a “renowned expert” in this field. As a quick aside, and for those unfamiliar with Ms. Steingraber, she has described hydraulic fracturing in such calm and collected ways as the “tornado on the horizon” that will hamstring your ability to “ride your bike along country roads” (no, seriously). She also thinks hydraulic fracturing is a “human-rights crisis,” and that “If we mitigate [hydraulic fracturing] to kill fewer people, we’re still killing people.” Sounds like a disinterested scientist for sure!
Ms. Streingraber’s statement attempts to cast a cloud of doubt over what experts have actually said – essentially saying “we can never really know, so Josh therefore isn’t wrong, and thus he is right” – before citing another common activist talking point: that childhood asthma rates are “more than double the national average” in Tarrant County, Texas, an active county for Barnett Shale development (also home to the city of Fort Worth).
The claim is clearly made to suggest that shale development is causing a spike on asthma rates. But if that were the case, then the entire Dallas-Fort Worth area would have also have an elevated rate of asthma. After all, if there’s a causal connection between development and asthma as Ms. Steingraber is clearly suggesting, then we’d obviously see it throughout the Barnett Shale region, where some 18,000 wells have been drilled.
But according to the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), the two regions that cover the Dallas-Fort Worth Area (DSHS Region 2 and 3) actually have childhood asthma rates that are below both the statewide average and the nationwide average.
Clearly, suggesting a casual connection between asthma incidence rates and development based on just a portion of a much broader area is a dangerous game, mostly because it begs another question: If there is a causal connection, then why isn’t the incidence rate higher for the whole region where development is occurring?
That’s clearly a question Mr. Fox and Ms. Steingraber don’t want to answer, no doubt because it would force them to admit that they cherry picked data (or even deliberately misrepresented the truth) in an attempt to scare the public.
But thanks to the AP’s reporting, they don’t need to admit that. We already know it.