In this file photo from Nov. 3, 2010, documentary filmmaker Josh Fox speaks at a rally of protestors against Marcellus Shale drilling and hydraulic fracturing in Pittsburgh. Researchers say the claim that fracking has been linked to increased cancer rates in Texas is simply wrong. Fox, an Oscar-nominated filmmaker who uses the claim in a new film, declined to acknowledge the error when told of researchers who say he’s doing a disservice to people with cancer by misrepresenting health data. AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File
(AP)—In the debate over natural gas drilling, the companies are often
the ones accused of twisting the facts. But scientists say opponents
sometimes mislead the public, too.
of fracking often raise alarms about groundwater pollution, air
pollution, and cancer risks, and there are still many uncertainties. But
some of the claims have little—or nothing—to back them.
example, reports that breast cancer rates rose in a region with heavy
gas drilling are false, researchers told The Associated Press.
that natural radioactivity in drilling waste could contaminate drinking
water aren’t being confirmed by monitoring, either.
concerns about air pollution from the industry often don’t acknowledge
that natural gas is a far cleaner burning fuel than coal.
debate is becoming very emotional. And basically not using science” on
either side, said Avner Vengosh, a Duke University professor studying
groundwater contamination who has been praised and criticized by both
gas drilling has attracted national attention because advances in
technology have unlocked billions of dollars of gas reserves, leading to
a boom in production, jobs, and profits, as well as concerns about
pollution and public health. Shale is a gas-rich rock formation
thousands of feet underground, and the gas is freed through a process
called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in which large volumes of
water, plus sand and chemicals, are injected to break the rock apart.
Marcellus Shale covers large parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and
West Virginia, while the Barnett Shale is in north Texas. Many other
shale deposits have been discovered.
of the clearest examples of a misleading claim comes from north Texas,
where gas drilling began in the Barnett Shale about 10 years ago.
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.”
researchers haven’t seen a spike in breast cancer rates in the area,
said Simon Craddock Lee, a professor of medical anthropology at the
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.
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.
don’t,” said Chandini Portteus, Komen’s vice president of research,
adding that they sympathize with people’s fears and concerns, but “what
we do know is a little bit, and what we don’t know is a lot” about
breast cancer and the environment.
Fox tells viewers in an ominous voice that “In Texas, as throughout the
United States, cancer rates fell—except in one place—in the Barnett
called the claims of an increase “a classic case of the ecological
fallacy” because they falsely suggest that breast cancer is linked to
just one factor. In fact, diet, lifestyle and access to health care also
play key roles.
responded to questions by citing a press release from the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention that doesn’t support his claim, and a
newspaper story that Risser said is “not based on a careful statistical
analysis of the data.”
Fox was told that Texas cancer researchers said rates didn’t increase,
he replied in an email that the claim of unusually high breast cancer
rates was “widely reported” and said there is “more than enough evidence
to warrant much deeper study.”
instance where fears haven’t been confirmed by science is the concern
that radioactivity in drilling fluids could threaten drinking water
of fracking note the deep underground water that comes up along with
gas has high levels of natural radioactivity. Since much of that water,
called flowback, was once being discharged into municipal sewage
treatment plants and then rivers in Pennsylvania, there was concern
about public water supplies.
in western Pennsylvania, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority did
extensive tests and didn’t find a problem in area rivers. State
environmental officials said monitoring at public water supply intakes
across the state showed non-detectable levels of radiation, and the two
cases that showed anything were at background levels.
about the potential problem also led to regulatory changes. An analysis
by The Associated Press of data from Pennsylvania found that of the
10.1 million barrels of shale wastewater generated in the last half of
2011, about 97 percent was either recycled, sent to deep-injection
wells, or sent to a treatment plant that doesn’t discharge into
of fracking also repeat claims of extreme air pollution threats, even
as evidence mounts that the natural gas boom is in some ways
contributing to cleaner air.
Marcellus air pollution “will cause a massive public health crisis,” claims a section of the Marcellus Shale Protest website.
data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration show that the
shale gas boom is helping to turn many large power plants away from
coal, which emits far more pollution. And the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency passed new rules to force drillers to limit releases
of methane from wells and pumping stations.
Some environmental groups now say that natural gas is having a positive effect on air quality.
this year, the group PennFuture said gas is a much cleaner burning
fuel, and it called gas-fired power plants “orders of magnitude cleaner”
than coal plants.
Shale Protest said in response to a question about its claims that “any
possible benefit in electric generation must be weighed against the
direct harm from the industrial processes of gas extraction.”
expert said there’s an actual psychological process at work that
sometimes blinds people to science, on the fracking debate and many
can literally put facts in front of people, and they will just ignore
them,” said Mark Lubell, the director of the Center for Environmental
Policy and Behavior at the University of California, Davis.
said the situation, which happens on both sides of a debate, is called
“motivated reasoning.” Rational people insist on believing things that
aren’t true, in part because of feedback from other people who share
their views, he said.
noted the problem of spinning science isn’t new, or limited to one side
in the gas drilling controversy. For example, industry supporters have
claimed that drilling never pollutes water wells, when state regulators
have confirmed cases where it has. He says the key point is that science
is slow, and research into gas drilling’s many possible effects are in
the early stages, and much more work remains to be done.
takes what they want to see,” Vengosh said, adding that he hopes that
the fracking debate will become more civilized as scientists obtain more
Source: The Associated Press