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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.

Seth Whitehead is a spokesman for Energy In Depth, an education and research program sponsored by the Independent Petroleum Association of America.


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