Fracking - Bad Science Debate Looms
July 23, 2012

Fracking – Bad Science Debate Looms

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Environmentalists often lean heavily on science and research to support their political cause, but a few scientists are now saying that some of the evidence these activists use is misleading or questionable.

"The debate is becoming very emotional. And basically not using science" on either side, Avner Vengosh, a Duke University professor studying groundwater contamination told the Associated Press.

Shale gas drilling has become a magnet for this type of skewed data and attracted national attention with the release of the 2010 documentary film Gasland by John Fox. Through a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, companies have unlocked billions of dollars worth of natural gas, leading to a boom in production, jobs, and profits.

The documentary depicts the environmental and health hazards associated with fracking. One of the more visceral scenes in the firm shows residents who live near a drilling site lighting their tap water on fire.

Both sides of the fracking debate have supported their argument using scientific evidence and claims, many of which have been misleading or insufficiently vetted.

One of the best examples of a misleading claim comes from Texas, where gas drilling began about 10 years ago in the Barrnett Shale, a geological formation in a northern section of the state. Opponents of fracking say breast cancer rates have risen exactly where the drilling is taking place and nowhere else in the state.

"In Texas, as throughout the United States, cancer rates fell – except in one place– in the Barnett Shale,” Fox said through a voiceover in the film.

However, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, an organization dedicated to battling cancer and based in Dallas, said it sees no evidence of a spike in rates.

"We don't," said Komen vice president Chandini Portteus, who added that her organization sympathizes with people's fears and concerns, but "what we do know is a little bit, and what we don't know is a lot" about the link between breast cancer and fracking.

When Fox was told that Texas cancer researchers did not report an increase in cancer rates, he responded in a statement that the claim of unusually high breast cancer rates was "widely reported" and there is "more than enough evidence to warrant much deeper study."

Fracking advocates can also be considered guilty of adopting research studies to further their own goals. A 2009 Penn State University report predicted natural gas companies would shun Pennsylvania if new taxes were imposed. The study was cited by legislators it the following year when they rejected a 5 percent tax proposed by Democratic Governor Ed Rendell.

The problem with the study from an objectivity standpoint is that it was funded by gas drillers and led by an economist, Tim Considine, who has history of producing industry-friendly research on energy and economic topics. Tim Considine responded to questions by standing by his analysis and saying that his findings were not biased by industry funding.

Professor Vengosh said the problem of spinning science isn't new and is frequently used by both sides of the debate.

"Everyone takes what they want to see" out the research available Vengosh said, adding that research into gas drilling's possible side effects are in the early stages and more data could lead to a more civilized debate.