Posted March 15, 2018
We’ve seen this movie before: Anti-natural gas and oil advocates put out a “study” or a “report” linking cancer, asthma, low birth weights and (fill in the blank) to industry operations. Scare headlines follow – with truth, as it so often does, lagging behind.
Frequently, the methodologies used in these studies lead to flawed or flimsy conclusions. For example, it’s poor methodology to confuse health effects correlation with causation. Correlation is two things occurring side by side; causation is proving scientifically that one caused the other.
Unfortunately, in recent months we’ve seen a parade of advocates – people clearly biased against our industry – peddling conclusions that lack firm data, sometimes based on research methods that aren’t widely accepted, and outdated assumptions, with the obvious intent to generate headlines. But this material isn’t always scientifically sound. Ultimately, it’s an approach that distracts from genuine work to develop sound policy for both public health and the nation’s energy security.
A new “study,” claiming a connection between hydraulic fracturing and a number of health effects, seems to follow this M.O. – with Rolling Stone eagerly supplying the megaphone. Turns out, the “study” by Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) and Concerned Health Professionals of New York (CHPNY), isn’t actually a study. Rather, it’s “compendium of scientific, medical, and media findings.”
It appears to be a repackaging of material, some of it of questionable scientific quality and clearly angled to support an anti-industry agenda (see paragraphs above) through warmed-over talking points and stuff that’s been in the media. No doubt, the Rolling Stone article will be added to the heap of media clips that can be cited by the next scare “study.”
As detailed by others, most of the studies in the PSR/CHPNY compendium don’t prove causation and are intended to be used as screening studies to develop hypotheses rather than establish causal conclusions. As such, they shouldn’t be used to draw conclusions by the press. In that vein, some cautions about reports (like the PSR/CHPN study) claiming that industry activities lead to certain health effects, supplied by Uni Blake, API’s scientific adviser:
- A compendium isn’t a scientific review. The PSR/CHPN compendium wasn’t developed using a systematic, transparent process that allows others to see how conclusions were reached and whether there was bias.
- Most of these kinds of reports don’t distinguish between source emissions of industry facilities and human exposures to those emissions. Exposure data must consider the frequency, duration and concentration of exposure – the amount of time spent and the activities engaged in within the vicinity of an exposure source.
- Causality is established by using a combination of well-conducted, scientifically robust studies.
- The health effect assertions cited in some of the reports are inconsistent with public health data trends and evidence.
Industry works every day to protect the health and safety of workers, the communities where it operates and the environment. Our member companies employ hundreds of thousands of scientists and engineers whose focus is safely producing and delivering affordable energy to Americans, making modern living possible. The goal is safe and responsible operations with a minimal footprint, as well as cleaner fuels and other products, to help the nation make climate progress.
This we are doing. Largely because of increased natural gas use, U.S. emissions of carbon dioxide have fallen to 25-year lows. Meanwhile, cleaner fuels played a major role in reducing U.S. air pollution 73 percent between 1970 and 2016 – even as vehicle miles traveled increased 190 percent and the economy grew 253 percent.
Industry supports genuine scientific research into our operations and products – our own and the research of people outside industry – that will help protect public health and reduce or eliminate air emissions through better engineering and technology.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Green joined API after a career in newspaper journalism, including 16 years as national editorial writer for The Oklahoman in the paper’s Washington bureau. Mark also was a reporter, copy editor and sports editor. He earned his journalism degree from the University of Oklahoma and master’s in journalism and public affairs from American University. He and his wife Pamela live in Occoquan, Va., where they enjoy their four grandchildren.