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Opinion | Seth Whitehead: Anti-fracking health claims not supported by facts

Fracking is making headlines again in the Land of Lincoln following the Illinois Department of Natural Resources’ announcement that it has approved the first-ever high volume hydraulic fracturing permit in the state. Along with that announcement has come a predictable level of hysteria largely attributable to outrageous claims by members of Illinois’ anti-fracking movement.

A notable example came Sunday in a guest view published in The Southern Illinoisan that alleged “emerging research” proves fracking will be “incredibly destructive to public health” for “generations to come.” But what it failed to mention is that an overwhelming majority of the studies “Keep It In The Ground” activists repeatedly point to as “evidence” of fracking’s health harms are limited epidemiological papers that claim “associations” between fracking and adverse health outcomes while failing to offer supporting causal evidence to show shale development is to blame for issues.

While the media has largely overlooked this trend, environmental research group Resources for the Future (RFF) has not. RFF recently evaluated 32 of the most prominent epidemiological studies alleging that fracking harms public health, concluding that “all had weaknesses and many had significant shortcomings.”

RFF also noted the studies collectively reported “contradictory results” for each impact and that the collective literature does “[n]ot provide strong evidence regarding specific health impacts and is largely unable to establish mechanisms for any potential health effects.”

In contrast, numerous studies based on actual measurements show fracking is protective of public health.

The latest example is a University of Cincinnati study that found emissions near oil and gas production sites in three of Ohio’s top producing counties are below EPA levels of health concern.

Similarly, a Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) health assessment — based on 10,000 air samples in parts of the state with “substantial” oil and gas operations — concluded in February that “the risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living [near] oil and gas operations,” and that “results from exposure and health effect studies do not indicate the need for immediate public health action.”

Then there’s the United States Geological Survey (USGS) study from earlier this year that examined 116 water wells in three different shale plays across three states, concluding fracking “is not currently affecting drinking water quality.”

Good luck finding any chatter about these studies on any major ENGO social media site (or any mainstream media sites, for that matter). But that doesn’t change the following facts: each of these studies was based on actual measurements, each found fracking is protective of public health — and all three refute rhetoric regularly pushed by ENGO’s such as the Natural Resources Defense Council claiming “air pollution from hydraulic fracturing threatens public health and communities.”

Of course, an obvious remedy for the common shortcomings flagged by RFF in studies claiming “associations” between fracking and health issues would be for researchers to take direct measurements to address data gaps preventing them from attributing causation. So why don’t most researchers heed this advice?

Considering these studies are often conducted by academics who oppose fracking and are in fact employing a meticulously crafted media strategy to curtail oil and gas development rather than add clarity to the public debate over whether fracking is protective of public health, it stands to reason that the they don’t want to close a data gap that would ultimately fail to advance their narrative. Alas, we continue to see the repeated mantra of “more research is needed” from those responsible for the research RFF evaluated.

In the meantime, the fact that no fewer than 18 emission studies and 28 groundwater reports based on actual measurements have concluded fracking is protective of public health remains a largely underreported phenomenon. Similarly, it may also come as a surprise to many that EPA data shows all significant air pollution of concern — including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, fine particulate matter and volatile organic compounds emissions — has declined significantly since 2005 thanks to the increased natural gas use made possible by fracking.

To be clear, the public discussion over fracking’s impact on public health is a serious one that certainly should be vigorously debated. However, the discussion should be based on concrete scientific data and research rather than loose “associations” found in flawed studies designed to generate headlines rather than a deeper understanding of the realities of oil and gas development.

“Keep It In The Ground” activists are quite fond of accusing others of denying science, so it is quite ironic that environmentalists continue to ignore concrete scientific evidence confirming that fracking is protective of public health.

Opinion | Washington Post: Florida was right to prepare for the worst

This editorial appeared in Tuesday's Washington Post:

Nearly a week before Hurricane Irma was predicted to make landfall in Florida, Gov. Rick Scott, R, declared a state of emergency for the entire state. State and local officials readied for the storm with promises of help from the federal government. Residents heeded the warnings with one of the largest evacuations ever to occur in the United States. The full damage of Irma, which continued to pose a danger Monday as it made its way north to Georgia and beyond, has yet to be calculated. But it is already clear that things would have been worse if not for that careful preparation.

Irma, the most powerful Atlantic storm in a decade, hit Florida Sunday after leaving a trail of destruction in the Caribbean. More than 6 million homes and businesses in Florida lost power, including most of Miami. Massive flooding was reported in Jacksonville, and the extent of the damage in the vulnerable Keys was not known because many of the islands were inaccessible Monday. At least nine deaths were reported in Florida, Georgia and South Carolina, while at least 38 people died in the islands across the Caribbean, where it is feared the death toll will climb as more information becomes available.

Governments in Britain, France and the Netherlands, which oversee Caribbean territories hit by Irma, have come under criticism for an ill-prepared and slow response to the historic storm. "All the food is gone now. People are fighting in the streets for what is left" was the account in the New York Times of a resident of St. Martin. Other factors — the strength of Irma when it hit (Category 5) and flimsy building construction — helped account for the destruction in these hard-hit islands.

So any criticism of Florida officials for taking the storm seriously and planning for all contingencies is misplaced. True, destruction was not as dire as predicted, but better to prepare for the worst than gamble with the lives of residents and visitors and those charged with protecting them. And this was a devastating storm for which there will be a long recovery period. Estimates are only starting to come in, but the economic toll — in disruptions to businesses, increased unemployment, crop losses, and property and infrastructure damage — is likely to be significant, with one forecaster putting the loss at about $100 billion. That is in addition to the $190 billion hit to the economy from Hurricane Harvey.

The magnitude of those losses — the fact of two Category 4 hurricanes within the space of weeks after the hottest year on record — hopefully will wake officials such as Scott to the need for foresight in preparing for future storms in an era of climate change while putting the economy on a track to slow greenhouse-gas emissions. It is true that single weather events usually cannot be linked definitively to climate change. It is also true that climate change will make such events more common and more severe. As Tomás Regalado, the Republican mayor of Miami, said, "This is a truly, truly poster child for what is to come."

Opinion | Voice of The Southern: State needs to do the smart thing with finances

When Bruce Rauner ran for governor of Illinois, he touted his experience as a successful businessman.

Looking at the financial information he released during the campaign, it was obvious Rauner knows what he’s doing in the business world. Illinois was already swimming in debt in 2014, so the call to elect someone well-versed in turning a profit was timely.

While it is perfectly possible for a business person to become a successful politician, the roles are not interchangeable. A business person has more latitude to make changes, sometimes it’s as easy as issuing a memo.

Things get more complicated in public office, especially in an office as powerful as governor. Granted, the office carries executive power, but real change must be made in concert with the General Assembly. We are nearly three years into the Rauner governorship and his relationship with the General Assembly can fairly classified as rocky.

Although the governor’s role is complicated by constitutional constraints on power, the constitution doesn’t impede Rauner from applying sound business principles in all aspects of governing. On the contrary, the governor has done that himself.

In the past month or so, Rauner has made decisions that seem contrary to solid business practices. The reasoning behind the decisions is puzzling to us, as well as most Illinois citizens.

The financial downturn early in this century and questionable financial decisions by the General Assembly and governors of both parties left Illinois sitting on a backlog of $15 billion in unpaid bills earlier this year.

To counteract that stack of bills, the Illinois General Assembly passed an income tax increase this summer – something Rauner campaigned against in 2014. Predictably, the governor vetoed the increase, but the veto was overridden.

This summer, the General Assembly also authorized the governor to issue up to $6 billion in bonds. The sale of the bonds would be used to write down the state’s outstanding bills.

Comptroller Susana Mendoza was outspoken on the need to issue the bonds. She noted that the state was paying 9 to 12 percent interest on the current bills while the debt service on the bonds would be just 4 to 6 percent.

Issuing the bonds and paying down the backlog of bills will save the state $2 million per day, according to Mendoza. To back up her point, Mendoza said the plan was endorsed by S&P Global.

“If we can knock off five or six interest points on this, it’s just a no-brainer,” Mendoza said during a recent interview with The Southern’s editorial board. “This is not a Democrat or Republican thing – this is a sound fiscal policy thing. We’re already borrowing money, it just makes sense.”

Inexplicably, Rauner balked at the notion – although saving $2 million per day seems like a solid business decision. Granted, there is no love lost between the governor’s office and the comptroller’s office. If the governor put politics ahead of the state’s taxpayers, that’s poor business.

“I’d rather stop the bleeding now and get to work on paying that down,” Mendoza said.

Eventually, Rauner agreed to issue the bonds, but no satisfactory reason for the delay was forthcoming.

The second decision that seems to defy sound business practice was the governor’s veto of the Debt Transparency Act. It passed the Illinois House with some bipartisan support – a notable accomplishment in Illinois’ polarized environment.

Again, the bill seems to promote sound business practices.

Under Illinois law, state agencies only have to present bills to the comptroller’s office for payment once a year. And, they don’t have to be submitted until October. Since the state’s fiscal year ends June 30, bills not submitted by October are already 120 days overdue.

“This is a long overdue initiative,” Mendoza said. “This is incredibly important information when managing a checkbook – that’s my job, to manage the state’s finance. It’s impossible to that when I don’t know what the true debt is.”

Mendoza said that practice helped hide the staggering amount of debt Illinois actually faced. She noted, and we agree, that the current law isn’t fair to taxpayers or the state’s creditors.

As previously noted, business and government operate on two different planes. This is one of those times when the planes intersect and solid business practices should be followed. It’s the smart, and right, thing to do.