Column filled with industry spin, absurd claims

  • By Karen Feridun
August 6, 2016

In a column that appeared on this page last Sunday, Nicole Jacobs attempted to discredit the results of a study by Johns Hopkins University that found asthma sufferers who live in proximity to unconventional shale gas development are as much as four times more likely to experience flare-ups than those who don’t.

To paraphrase author Upton Sinclair, it is difficult to get a woman to understand something when her salary depends on her not understanding it.

Jacobs identified herself as the Pennsylvania director of Energy In Depth, a research and education program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. Well, not quite. While Jacobs’ title is correct, Energy in Depth would be much more accurately called a public relations group for the industry, not one dedicated to research and education.

In a 2009 memo obtained by Brendan DeMelle of industry watchdog Desmog, IPAA president and CEO Barry Russell announced the formation of Energy In Depth, writing, “For months, IPAA’s government relations and communications teams have been working around the clock on a new industry-wide campaign – known as “Energy In Depth” (www.energyindepth.org) – to combat new environmental regulations, especially with regard to hydraulic fracturing. And, we’re seeing some outstanding results.”

Russell went on to thank some of the largest oil and gas companies on the planet for their financial help in launching EID. “The ‘Energy In Depth’ project would not be possible without the early financial commitments of: El Paso Corporation, XTO Energy, Occidental Petroleum, BP, Anadarko, Marathon, EnCana, Chevron, Talisman, Shell, API, IPAA, Halliburton, Schlumberger and the Ohio Oil and Gas Association.”

Public relations spin should never be confused with honest attempts to discuss research or to educate. No professional dedicated to an honest assessment of the facts would seriously promote an apples and oranges comparison a single study of air quality monitoring for three months in two locations, a school and a home, and a robust peer-reviewed study that looked at 27,000 asthma cases over a span of eight years in patients aged 5 through 90 and that took into account such factors as family history, smoking, and others before drawing its conclusions.

Jacobs uses her flawed logic to launch an attack on the “activist researchers” at Johns Hopkins who also authored one of the recent studies that linked low birth weight and high-risk pregnancy to proximity to unconventional natural gas development. Just as with the asthma study, where she deliberately misled the reader by citing a Pennsylvania Department of Health report that shows a decrease in hospitalizations from asthma, she uses national statistics on low birth weight in her attempt to discredit the study that looked at 11,000 birth records spanning five years to come to its conclusion.

Both of the Johns Hopkins studies were using sets of records of either asthma flare-ups or cases of low birth weight to see if the numbers of cases changed the closer the patient or mother of the newborn lived in proximity to shale gas development, after painstakingly taking into account a number of factors that could influence the outcome. That’s how science works. It’s slow, it’s exacting, and it’s not as sloppy as saying, “One would think hospitalizations would have skyrocketed and shale counties would have the highest rates” or “But when you actually look at the data, they show premature birth rates in shale counties were at or below the national rate, so they were in no way elevated.”

Her most absurd claim, however, is her conclusion that natural gas actually improves public health and air quality. She very suddenly switches topics from unconventional drilling to increased reliance on natural gas for electricity generation to try to justify her claim. Of course, there can be no natural gas electricity generation without unconventional drilling. On that basis alone, it is flat wrong to say that public health and air quality are improved. More than 680 peer-reviewed studies, many of them specific to issues of health and air quality, not to mention water quality, demonstrate that unconventional drilling adversely affects them all.

Her closing paragraphs were a breathtaking display of empty rhetoric, dissembling, and misdirection. The combination of the unsourced campaign rhetoric of a pro-fracking presidential candidate, the conflation of asthma and all health, and a Hail Mary attempt to discredit scientists one last time overlooks, very deliberately, the myriad adverse effects of shale gas development. It overlooks the profound impact methane, the main ingredient of natural gas, is having on climate and the public health implications of that, and the fact that we can no longer afford to trade one poison for another. All fossil-fuel power plants are polluters that are making people sick, threatening our ability to avert the impending climate disaster, and institutionalizing damaging fracking and infrastructure projects that have no place in our clean energy future.

Karen Feridun is a member of the steering committee of the group Pennsylvanians Against Fracking.

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