Report: Science Behind NY Fracking Ban Tainted by Money, Politics

Anti-fracking activists funded and wrote key studies used to justify ban, report claims


The scientific research underlying New York’s ban on an innovative oil and gas extraction technique was funded and produced by activists deeply involved in the political campaign to ban the practice, according to a report released Thursday.

Ostensibly neutral scientific observers set out to produce work that would build the case against hydraulic fracturing using rudimentary and unscientific methods that an unbiased peer review process would have rejected, the report alleges.

It was released on Thursday by Energy In Depth, a project of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, ahead of a House hearing on New York’s "fracking" ban.

The paper comes as Congress is increasingly interested in the funding sources of scientific work on U.S. energy policy. EID’s report alleges an ideological "echo chamber" designed to build the case against fracking under the guise of dispassionate, peer-reviewed research.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D.) of New York officially banned fracking in the state in December after years of trying to straddle a debate between his party’s environmentalist base and upstate communities sitting on the Marcellus Shale, which contains large amounts of natural gas.

Cuomo and Howard Zucker, New York’s acting health commissioner, said the decision came after extensive scientific research on fracking’s environmental and health impacts. However, key parts of that research were produced by anti-fracking activists and used questionable methodology.

"Research papers praised by the Cuomo administration as ‘bona fide scientific literature’ included reports that were financed and produced almost entirely by professional opposition groups," EID’s western director, Simon Lomax, told the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on Thursday according to written testimony.

At a press conference announcing New York’s fracking ban, Zucker touted a report on air quality near fracking wells in other states.

"Monitoring results from the entire six-state sampling project showed that some chemical levels were hundreds of times higher than what some federal agencies have determined to be safe," according to a news release on the report.

Zucker neglected to mention that the report was part of a project "convened" by a pair of anti-fracking groups called Coming Clean and the Global Community Monitor.

The report relied in large measure on air quality tests conducted by GCM, which says on its website that it "want[s] to see [fracking] banned." Two of the report’s authors are GCM employees.

Another author is the executive director of ShaleTest, an affiliate of environmentalist group EarthWorks, which recently compared fracking to rape. Yet another worked for the Center for Environmental Health, which urged New York legislators to "support legislative moratoriums and bans" on fracking, including specific pieces of legislation in Albany.

GCM gathered the data used in the report by capturing air in buckets lined with plastic bags. GCM’s Denny Larson, one of the report’s authors, has admitted that that technique—"the Bucket Brigade," as he calls it—is not a scientific method so much as a political one.

"The Bucket Brigade is not a scientific experiment," he wrote in a 2006 manual for environmental activism. "Our focus is on organizing. We use science, but only in the service of organizing."

EID alleges that that activism permeated the report. It was not adequately vetted during the peer review process, they claim, "because all three peer reviewers were also opponents of fracking."

One peer reviewer, Professor Sandra Steingraber of Ithaca College, is the cofounder of New Yorkers Against Fracking. Another, Professor Robert Oswald of Cornell University, has actively campaigned for a fracking ban. A third peer-reviewer has called for fracking moratoriums.

All three peer-reviewers declared that they had "no competing interests" in the fracking debate.

However, Steingraber has worked extensively with—and received financial support from—the Ithaca-based Park Foundation, which is explicitly opposed to fracking. Its president called for a New York fracking ban in 2011.

The foundation has also supported two groups, the Health and Environmental Funders Network and the Sustainable Markets Foundation, that EID says "paid for the development and dissemination" of "at least six studies" invoked by the Cuomo administration in support of the fracking ban.

The two groups created an "echo chamber," EID says: They funded studies on fracking’s supposed dangers, activist groups to promote the studies and to leverage them into political advantage, and friendly media outlets to report on the process.

"When the foundations that finance anti-fracking activism said they would campaign against shale development ‘from every angle,’ they meant business," Lomax said in his prepared remarks.

Congress has recently delved into questions regarding funding for energy-related scientific work. Rep. Raul Grijalva (D., Ariz.) recently sent letters to a number of scientists asking them to disclose any funding they had d received from industry sources.

Some energy policy experts see a parallel in environmentalist funding for research supporting the fracking ban.

"I think New York lawmakers (rather than Congress) have every reason to pursue this matter—as it relates to the incompetence of an administration that would rely on such conclusion-driven science to make consequential policy," said William Yeatman, an energy policy expert at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.