Monday, October 14, 2013


(First published in The Athens Messenger, October 2013.)

My students gathered up their things.  They had their assignment—to write a profile of someone notable in their community—and everything they needed to complete the paper: sample profiles, books, notes on generating interview questions.  At the door, I stopped them with a reminder:  “Please,” I said.  “Don’t just interview your friends.”

A new study released last month by the Center for Energy and Environmental Research, a study co-funded by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and the natural gas industry to measure methane pollution from fracking, commits this fatal flaw: They interviewed their friends.

Specifically, the study measured wells chosen by the gas industry at times selected by the gas industry. 

Perhaps this bias is unsurprising given the study’s co-authors: one works as a consultant for the oil and gas industry while the other is a former petroleum engineer.  Sponsors of the study include Chevron, Anadarko Petroleum, and XTO Energy (a subsidiary of ExxonMobil)—a full 90% of the study’s funding coming from gas companies.

Perhaps it also comes as no surprise that this industry-funded study found pollution at significantly lower levels than all previous research on the subject, including a much-larger Cornell University study conducted less than two years ago. 

In addition to looking only at wells selected by the gas industry, what Seth B. Shonkoff, Executive Director of Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, calls a “non-random choice of sites,” presenting a “best-case scenario,” the EDF study took measurements at a mere 190 wells total. 

This is a grossly inadequate sampling, given that the United States is now home to more than half a million active natural gas wells—and more and more every day; 25,000 new wells were drilled last year alone. 

And here’s the fine print of the study: Its tests on pollution levels were conducted at a single stage in a multi-stage process—and not at the stage where leaks are most likely to occur, according to previous research. The EDF and industry-funded study took methane measurements only at the drilling pad.  Yet pollution also escapes during compression, processing, storage, transmissions, and distribution.

Despite the narrow focus of the study, inadequate sample size, industry-determined sample selection, and bias of the researchers who work or have worked in the industry, this subjective study is being reported in many media outlets as definitive, as a final word on fracking pollution. The headline of The New York Times?  “Gas Leaks in Fracking Disputed.”

Why is pseudo-science being taken seriously? 

Because we’re desperate.  We want to believe fracking is safe.  We want alternative energy now.  But we also want—need—the truth about it.

The gas industry, according to Phil Radford of EcoWatch blog, “desperately wants to get us hooked to its latest product before we have time to adequately study it.”  They’re hoping we will ignore the discrepancies in the study, the inadequacies of the study. 

But a time when humans have been deemed responsible for climate change—there is more than a 95% certainty of human culpability, according to The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change —we need to fully investigate fracking before launching even more pollutants into the atmosphere.

We deserve unbiased studies, thorough research, and solid reporting.  We deserve more than industry puppets interviewing their friends.

Ohio especially has a stake in finding out the truth about fracking and pollutants.  Last year alone, Ohio became the resting ground for 588 million gallons of waste from fracking—that’s what’s in our earth.  Shouldn’t we be told truthfully what’s in our air?

It’s a story that the gas industry is feeding us. We deserve the whole story before signing over our air, our water, our land, and our lives.