Oil and gas proponents used to insist, there is no evidence of negative impacts from fracking. Then, in several short years, hundreds of studies have demonstrated the very real risks to air, water, health, and the climate. Not happy with the findings, proponents have turned to industry-funded research to produce what they would prefer to see.
Most recently, Energy In Depth’s (EID) “Health and Well-ness: Analysis of Key Public Health Indicators in Six of the Most Heavily Drilled Marcellus Shale Counties in Pennsylvania” report attempts to refute that unconventional drilling in Pennsylvania negatively affects health.
EID’s claims are suspect and disturbing in part because the report is based on poor methods. It features the bad interpretation of data, enabled by big jumps in logic, leading to incoherent and misleading conclusions. Despite some fetching graphics, EID’s paper falls far short of reliable public health information.
Mortality over a short 10-year period is not the best–or only–measure of health in a community.
EID’s report takes a small amount of data–a brief 10 years of death rates–and uses it to assert lofty conclusions. It claims that “there was no identifiable impact on death rates in the six counties attributable to the introduction of oil and gas development” and uses mortality rates as a proxy for “the overall health of a population.” However, this approach blatantly ignores other crucial indicators of health and well-being.
For example, chronic health impacts potentially associated with oil and gas and that can shorten life (such as respiratory problems, cancers, and neurological changes) can take longer than 10 years to develop, so associated death rates would only be identifiable over a longer period of time.
The report also fails to acknowledge the importance of quality of life, which can be greatly impacted by the diseases increasingly associated with fracking–like asthma from air emissions and stress-induced conditions from living with constant noise–even when not fatal in the short-term.
Other important and informative health indicators omitted in EID’s report but addressed in recent fracking research include rates of hospitalizations and impacts to birth weight. Mortality is not the only factor that matters, and the first decade of unconventional drilling is not an adequate window of time to assess it.
What about all the health studies?
In any reputable study, researchers demonstrate an understanding of the relevant health literature. The author of this report neglected to acknowledge–let alone engage–the growing body of research pointing to serious health concerns with fracking, dismissing them as mere “allegations.” Yet according to ananalysis of peer-reviewed studies on shale gas and health, 84% percent “indicate public health hazards, elevated risks, or adverse health outcomes.”
Additionally, the author of the report has limited its scope to counties with the most drilled wells, but of course, pollution from fracked gas doesn’t end at the well site. Communities along the pipelines that transport the gas are also exposed to emissions and noise pollution from associated infrastructure like pigging stations, underground storage facilities, compressor stations, processing facilities, and power plants. PSE Health Energy and The Endocrine Disruption Exchange both offer excellent and exhaustive repositories of shale gas health research documenting a range of exposures.
Correlations dressed up as conclusions
EID’s report is not an economics study. Yet, it asserts that a) shale gas has resulted in economic gains and b) that those economic gains have reduced mortality rates. To arrive at these grand claims, it uses only two very limited economic measurements–unemployment and per capita income. It does not assess the quality of employment–how many of these are part-time jobs, or represent reductions in hours?–nor how evenly those economic gains are distributed. An even bigger concern is that by crediting economics with a decrease in deaths, the report ignores countless other factors that may play an equal or bigger role in health outcomes, such as broader access to care through improved medical facilities or greater rates of insurance coverage.
What Pennsylvanians deserve
Poor methods and indefensible conclusions aside, perhaps the biggest problem with EID’s report is how it insults and disregards Pennsylvanians. With its fanatic and near-baseless celebration of fracking, EID loudly insists that Pennsylvanians should be grateful for whatever they get from the shale gas boom. By misrepresenting the counterevidence as “largely exaggerated and often unfounded” and otherwise attempting to marginalize the growing public dissatisfaction with the impacts to air, water, health and the industrialization of communities, the report is in effect telling us to stop questioning the shale gas industry. By touting the meager and dubious benefits of fracking, it warns us not to ask for anything better, lest we lose the little we seem to have gained.
This report peddles the belief that the possible benefits of fracking to some offset the harm done to others. In a section titled “Impacts,” the author glosses over what it calls “allegations of harm to the environment and human health” while lauding short-term economic gains and lower consumer gas prices.
In other words, it declares that some must sacrifice for the good of others. Even if we’re inclined to accept this inhumane logic of forced sacrifice, are we willing to accept that the price is paid by communities which EID acknowledges are historically economically disadvantaged and currently have a “higher percentage of elderly residents” than the state as a whole?
The limited jobs and economic bump which the report attributes to drilling also fall short of what Pennsylvanians deserve. The report threatens that layoffs and unemployment increase health risks. But the same source used to make this point actually emphasizes that to benefit health, jobs must be both steady and safe. Fracking jobs are neither. The inevitable “bust” of extractive economies is a well-known fact, leading to layoffs. As for safety, the oil and gas sector is one of the most dangerous in the US, with a fatality rate seven times greater than any other industry. Well pad explosions, for example, are responsible for injuries and deaths of gas workers in Washington, Allegheny and Greene counties, as well as in many other states nationwide.
Health impacts and dangerous, temporary jobs are an insult to Pennsylvanians. We certainly deserve better than this. EID’s report is not real research–it’s unsubstantiated and misleading self-promotion from the mouthpiece of an industry headed for an inevitable decline.