So how did this recycled “report” claiming those who live near oil and gas infrastructure face elevated health risks due to air pollution manage to get media coverage in POLITICO and E&E News? By incorporating children into the narrative — a go-to anti-fracking media strategy detailed in a 2012 memo that encouraged “Keep It In the Ground” groups to make connections between health problems and fracking, even when no evidence existed to support the linkage.
Unfortunately, it proved somewhat effective, as Wednesday’s edition of POLITICO Morning Energy reported that Earthworks’ “updated analysis” finds “2.9 million children are at risk from toxic air pollution from active oil and gas production sites within half a mile of their schools.”
Contrary to what POLITICO reported, the only update to Earthworks’ “analysis” is its finding that a significant number of U.S. schools are within a half mile of an oil or gas well. In no way, shape or form does Earthworks’ “analysis” — new or old — prove that this arbitrary “threat radius” is evidence of “risk from toxic air pollution.” And you don’t have to take our word for it, as Earthworks has previously acknowledged this fact,
“The Threat Radius is the area within 1/2 mile of active oil and gas wells, compressors and processors. It indicates that those within it should be concerned; it is not a declaration that those within it will have negative health impacts. The Threat Radius does not quantify the threat posed by this pollution.”
Earthworks has also previously admitted that its “Threat Maps” are “not a measure of actual risk” and are plagued by “data quality issues” and “uncertainties,” while also saying, “The Threat Map doesn’t mean you’re safe if you live farther than a half-mile from a facility, or doomed if you live closer than a half-mile.”
There is a good reason for Earthworks’ ambiguous self-assessment: The two “reports” (“Fracking Fumes” and “Gasping for Breath”) for which the entire “Threat Maps” project is based are themselves based on similarly ambiguous studies that failed to take actual air measurements. Instead, these studies rely on “associations” to reach their conclusions that oil and gas production may harm public health, a common flaw of anti-fracking studies that was recently criticized by environmental research group Resources for Our Future. It is for this reason that Earthworks’ “Threat Maps” project is littered with scientific weasel words such as “indicates” and “correlated” rather than definitive terms to match its alarmist topline conclusions, as the following example illustrates,
“Peer-reviewed science indicates that living within a ½ mile of these production facilities is clearly correlated with negative health impacts including cancer, respiratory illness, fetal defects, blood disorders, and neurological problems.”
And it’s no wonder the project has not only been debunked multiple times by EID (here, here, here and here) but is also refuted by multiple state health agency assessments (one directly), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data and numerous other experts that have determined, based on direct emission measurements and actual emissions data, that emissions from oil and gas production are below thresholds regulatory authorities consider to be a threat to public health.
Notably, some of the most prominent examples are from states Earthworks identifies as being the “most threatened” based on its flawed proximity metric.
Ohio: Earthworks’ No. 1 “Most Threatened” State
Earthworks determined that Ohio is the “most threatened” state in the U.S. based on its finding that more than three million people in the Buckeye State live within a half mile of an oil or gas production facility. But two recent University of Cincinnati studies based on actual air measurements from production sites have both concluded that emissions are well below EPA health concern thresholds.
Most recently, UC announced preliminary results from a study based on actual measurements from production sites that found “none of the air sample averages exceeded EPA levels of health concern” after being evaluated for 63 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and formaldehyde.
Back in 2016, a corrected version of a retracted UC study based on production site measurements in Carroll County found polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) emissions levels were well below the level the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says would increase the risk of cancer — the complete opposite of what the original study claimed.
Texas: Earthworks’ No. 2 “Most Threatened” State
Not only does Earthworks surmise that the Lone Star State is the second most “threatened” state based solely on its finding that more than 2.8 million Texans live within a half mile of an active oil or gas production site, its “Gasping for Breath” report was directly debunked by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for suggesting emissions from oil and gas development was largely responsible for air pollution causing a spike in asthma attacks.
As the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported last year:
“State regulators say emissions from oil and gas operations are not a major contributor to air pollution in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, calling into question a recent environmental report linking methane leaks to an anticipated rise in asthma attacks…
“Texas Commission on Environmental Quality data shows that operations associated with the energy industry in Fort Worth and Dallas contribute 1.8 parts per billion to ozone levels on the worst days, from May to September, while planes, trains, and automobiles contribute 14.1 parts per billion. Those measurements also were taken during the peak times of the ozone season, agency officials said.” (Emphasis added)
The Star-Telegram also reported that TCEQ officials criticized Earthworks for using emission estimates and computer models that assume all emissions are from oil and gas production, rather than direct measurements, in its report:
“David Brymer, the agency’s director of air quality, voiced doubts about how Earthworks and the Clean Air Task Force used its computer models to produce the information and then how they analyzed that data. Brymer cautioned that they have insufficient information to entirely evaluate the environmental report.”
Pennsylvania: Earthworks’ No. 3 “Most Threatened” State
Earthworks determines Pennsylvania is the third “most threatened” state based solely on its finding that 1.5 million of its residents live within a half-mile of oil and gas infrastructure. But as EID’s recent Compendium of Studies Demonstrating the Safety and Health Benefits of Fracking details, no fewer than five studies based on actual air measurements in Pennsylvania have found production emissions are protective of public health (one of these studies was conducted near a school). The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has also found that thanks to natural gas, emissions have been reduced by over 500 million tons.
And as EID previously reported, state health data indicate a significant 26 percent reduction in inpatient asthma hospitalizations throughout the entire state between 2009 and 2013 — which happens to be a time when shale development was soaring. Further, as EID highlighted, the data shows that counties with shale development saw fewer hospitalizations than those where little or no fracking was taking place.
Colorado: Earthworks’ No. 10 “Most Threatened” State
Earthworks determines that Colorado is the 10th “most threatened” state based solely on its finding that nearly 250,000 Coloradans live within a half-mile of oil and gas production infrastructure.
But a recent Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) health assessment — based on 10,000 air samples in parts of the state with “substantial” oil and gas operations — concluded in February that “the risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living [near] oil and gas operations,” and that “results from exposure and health effect studies do not indicate the need for immediate public health action.”
CDPHE Chief Medical Officer and Executive Director Dr. Larry Wolk also told the Colorado Independent prior to that assessment’s release that:
“What the data shows is that from a registry standpoint — we maintain registries based on a number of health conditions, whether it’s cancer, birth defects, etc.— that the rates of these different health concerns or issues in some of these oil and gas-rich communities were no different from those that were not in oil and gas-rich communities.” (Emphasis added)
Not only do studies based on actual air measurements find emissions from well sites and associated infrastructure are below thresholds regulatory authorities consider to be a threat to public health, experts agree that increased natural gas use over the past decade has led to dramatic declines in air pollution on a national scale.
Natural gas not only emits far less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels when burned, but it also emits far fewer criteria pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and particulate matter. This is why experts agree increased natural gas use in recent years has led to the dramatic declines detailed in the following EID chart.
Volatile organic compound emissions have also declined 16 percent since 2005 at the same time oil and natural gas production has skyrocketed. It is these very pollutants that groups like Earthworks repeatedly claim fracking increases, causing cancer, premature births, birth defects, asthma and even fatigue and headaches. But actual air measurements and emissions data show the exact opposite is true, which is a huge reason why the United States has some of the lowest death rates from air pollution in the world despite being the world’s number one oil and gas producer.
Of course, the “reports” churned out by groups like Earthworks are not designed to add to the honest scientific debate regarding fracking’s alleged health effects. After all, Earthworks has declared a “war on fracking” and is notorious for releasing reports that are more egregious than scientific. The group’s Texas spokesperson has even compared fracking to sexual assault.
Earthworks’ ultimate goal is to leverage the media coverage in an effort to undermine support for oil and natural gas development and expand regulations. These facts considered, rather than this report (again) being presented in the media as a legitimate “analysis,” Earthworks’ regurgitated “Threat Maps” report should be viewed for what it is: an advocacy piece put together by groups working to ban fracking.
Read more at EID Health