In New York fracking fight, peer-review trashed by far-left politics

National anti-fracking groups are urging energy producing states, including Colorado and California, to impose oil and gas production bans after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) blocked hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in the Empire State. A recent column by the Center for Health, Environment and Justice went further and demanded President Obama impose a national ban on hydraulic fracturing and the domestic oil and natural gas development it makes possible. The column even portrayed Cuomo and anti-fracking activists as champions of “peer-reviewed science.”

Here’s what actually happened in New York: The peer-review process, at the heart of the scientific method, was thrown under the bus by anti-fracking activists and the Cuomo administration.

{mosads}For starters, one of the research papers waved in front of the cameras at the Dec. 17 announcement of the ban was actually written and peer-reviewed by fracking opponents who concealed their bias from the public, in violation of well-established codes of scientific conduct.

Several of the paper’s authors worked for oil and gas opposition groups, but they did not identify themselves as anti-industry campaigners. One of those groups is a “ban fracking” outfit that uses buckets lined with plastic bags to collect bogus air samples. These samples were presented as evidence in the paper, even though the group had previously admitted the so-called “bucket brigade” is “not a scientific experiment.”  

All three of the paper’s reviewers were oil and gas opponents, too. They were led by the co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking, Ithaca College professor Sandra Steingraber, who bragged after the ban was announced “it is so sweet … to tell the story of our victory over the shale gas army.” 

According to the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, peer reviewers should “recuse themselves from reviewing specific manuscripts if the potential for bias exists” to maintain “trust in the scientific process.” As for the authors, the World Conference on Research Integrity says they should disclose financial and non-financial conflicts “that might be considered likely to affect the interpretation of their findings or which editors, reviewers or readers might reasonably wish to know.” 

But the “bucket brigade” paper isn’t only problematic source used by the Cuomo administration – far from it. A report released by Cuomo’s health commissioner cites three different papers from a “progressive” journal, whose contributors include “environmentalists in their many habitats” and “activists on the streets.” This journal has been called out by a United Nations environmental adviser as “not a mainstream journal of the sort where high standards of refereeing would apply.”  

Cuomo’s report also cited a number of papers from Colorado, but failed to disclose the fact the researchers have been criticized by public health officials for, among other things, making assumptions that were “not factually or scientifically valid.” The report event cites so-called research from the anti-drilling group Earthworks, without mentioning its clear bias on the issue. 

Cuomo needed these and other questionable sources to justify his decision because environmental regulators had already concluded twice before – in 2009 and 2011 – that hydraulic fracturing for shale gas could safely proceed in New York. Likewise, federal environmental regulators under Democratic and Republican presidents and their counterparts in other states – including California – have rejected the “ban fracking” agenda as a fringe ideology rooted in far-left politics, not facts. Recently, when asked about New York, Obama’s Interior Secretary Sally Jewell said fracking bans are the “wrong way to go” and suggested anti-fracking activists “don’t understand the science.”

But Cuomo ignored all of this and delayed his decision for years while the anti-fracking campaign went to work. One of the biggest contributors was the $400 million Park Foundation in Ithaca, N.Y., which funded anti-fracking work “from every angle,” including “science, research, corporate influence, policy, legal issues, health effects, economic forecasting, grassroots efforts, media, and investment strategies.” Steingraber – peer-reviewer of the “bucket brigade” research paper – is an “academic recipient of Park money,” according to Philanthropy magazine. Her group, New Yorkers Against Fracking, also received more than $500,000 from the Park Foundation, with Washington, D.C.-based “ban fracking” group Food & Water Watch acting as the pass-through. Earthworks, cited in Cuomo’s report on the fracking ban, has also received at least $375,000 from the Park Foundation.

In its column, the Center for Health, Environment and Justice cited the work of another New York group – Physicians Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy, or PSE – as showing “nearly all bad news” about fracking. But according to Philanthropy magazine, PSE was created with Park Foundation money “to promote an aggressive anti-shale-gas agenda.” The column also failed to mention the Center for Health, Environment and Justice’s own funding – at least $125,000 – from the Park Foundation. When it pledged to campaign “from every angle,” the Park Foundation meant business. A 2014 report from the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee even cited the Park Foundation’s “manufactured echo chamber” as one of the best examples of far-left environmental campaigning in the nation today.

All told, New York’s fracking ban was a victory of fringe environmental politics over the facts. Nothing more and, importantly, nothing less.

Lomax is a Denver-based energy industry consultant and spokesman for Energy In Depth, an education and outreach program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

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