A long-running fight over whether unconventional oil and natural gas development harms air, water and human health entered its latest round with the simultaneous release of reports from both camps claiming accumulating evidence for their arguments.
Two groups of physicians on Thursday released their latest compilation of scientific studies, government and industry reports, and journalistic investigations that claim fracking for oil and natural gas damages human health, pollutes air and water, and contributes to climate change.
At the same time, the American Petroleum Institute issued its own summary of scientific studies, state and federal regulations, and peer-reviewed reports to defend last year’s finding by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that after a six-year investigation it had found no widespread, systemic impact from fracking on drinking water.
The API said it wanted to present a range of evidence for its case ahead of the expected finalization of the EPA report before the end of 2016, while the medical groups presented the fourth edition of their digest of hundreds of studies, saying that most show fracking causes actual or potential harm to human health and the environment.
A “compendium” from Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York summarizes studies and reports as far back as 2007. All have been previously published by their authors but those released in 2016 have not appeared in the three previous editions of the compendium.
The doctors’ report said the accumulation of evidence supports long-held claims, based on individual reports, that fracking is harmful for the environment and for the people who live near oil and gas wells.
“Earlier scientific predictions and anecdotal evidence are now bolstered by empirical data, confirming that the public health risks from unconventional gas and oil extraction are real, the range of adverse environmental impacts wide, and the negative economic consequences considerable,” the report said. “Our examination of the peer-reviewed medical and public health literature uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health.”
The API study, meanwhile, said the EPA document was supported by state and federal regulatory reviews and “dozens” of peer-reviewed case studies. Its citations included a report from the California Council on Science and Technology — which said in 2015 that it had found no evidence of groundwater contamination from fracking in California — and many state regulations that are designed to stop oil and gas development contaminating air and water.
“The EPA’s study on hydraulic fracturing and groundwater protection will be viewed globally and must reflect existing scientific evidence,” said Erik Milito, API’s director of upstream and industry operations. “As the study is finalized and prepared for release by the end of the year, it is critical for any review to focus on the facts and available science.”
Milito said the API report, by the consulting firm Catalyst Environmental Solutions, corroborates the EPA’s study with a “large, credible body of case studies.”
The API presented what it called “additional quantitative information” that supports the EPA’s conclusion. “The data demonstrate the absence of a direct correlation between hydraulic fracturing and impairments to drinking water quality,” it said.
In August, the EPA’s landmark fracking report came under fire from its own Science Advisory Board (SAB) which called on the agency to provide more evidence for its conclusion that fracking has had no widespread impact on drinking water. The 30-member SAB urged the EPA to quantify its analysis, which it said failed to define ‘systemic’ and ‘widespread’, and did not clearly describe sources of interest such as ground water and surface water.
The EPA report is cited in the physicians’ compendium which also quotes an EPA science advisor, Thomas Burke, as saying the study had “identified vulnerabilities” in the water system.
The compendium said that of 685 studies monitored between 2009 and 2015, 69 percent of those on water quality found evidence of potential or actual contamination; 87 percent of those on air quality found elevated pollutant emissions, and 84 percent of those on human health found signs of actual or potential harm, the report said.
The compilation is based on peer-reviewed medical or scientific journals; investigative reports by journalists; and reports from, or commissioned by, government agencies. It uses anecdotal reports when they are data-based and verifiable, arguing that individual cases have helped identify previously unsuspected epidemiological links.
It mostly excludes the work of advocacy groups, although the authors said many of those groups had written “useful” reports on the effects of fracking.
Danielle Filson, a spokeswoman for the physicians, said the compendium contains reports from all over the United States, and was being sent to governors of other states but would be personally presented to Gov. Wolf or his representatives because “so many” of the reports have been on Pennsylvania.
Filson said the 209-page document aims to give a “ten-thousand-foot” view of the fracking studies to help observers keep track of frequent reports on specific issues or locations.
The physicians’ groups urged Wolf to put a moratorium on fracking, as recently requested by the Pennsylvania Medical Society, and establish a statewide registry on health complaints related to fracking.
Asked whether the authors selected reports that support their opposition to fracking, Filson said the compilation includes studies, such as the EPA report, that question the contention that fracking harms air and water quality and human health. But she argued that the vast majority of the evidence supports the physicians’ position.
“The Compendium overwhelmingly contains entries with positive findings for risk and harm because that’s what the literature shows,” Filson wrote in an email. “Eighty-five percent of the peer-reviewed studies that looked at potential or actual risks and harms for public health found evidence for them.”
A few of the physicians’ citations don’t support the contention that unconventional oil and gas development, including actual fracking, is harmful for the environment. A 2016 study, for example, concluded that rising levels of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, were mainly the result of agriculture rather than of oil and gas output, as other studies suggested.
Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University engineering professor emeritus who reviewed the compendium for technical accuracy, said the studies were selected for their relevance to the debate on fracking rather than because they support a particular point of view.
“It’s a clear analysis that is presenting all of the content that we think is relevant,” said Dr. Ingraffea, a long-time critic of oil and gas development in shale fields.
Ingraffea said unconventional oil and gas development as a whole, rather than hydraulic fracturing specifically, is responsible for many environmental problems.
Among the studies cited was one by Johns Hopkins University, published in August this year, that found Pennsylvanians with the highest exposure to fracked gas wells had higher rates of migraines, nasal problems and fatigue than the rest of the population.
Some investigations cited by the compilation found links between fracking and infant deaths, pre-term births, high-risk pregnancies and low birth weights.
One by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry said in May that it had found substances include methane, arsenic and some organic chemicals in 27 private water wells in Dimock at levels that were “high enough to affect human health.”
Another ATSDR report found that people living near a compressor station in Brooklyn Township, Susquehanna County were exposed to particulate matter at levels that can damage health among those with long-term exposure, the compilation said.
And in a section on the climate effects of fracking, the compilation cited a report from Carnegie Mellon University which found that the unconventional gas wells in the Marcellus Shale were 23 times more likely to leak methane, a potent greenhouse gas, than conventional wells.