Last December, EPA released a draft report on water quality in tiny Pavillion, Wyo., which was immediately seized upon by opponents of natural gas development in the United States (and even around the world) as smoking-gun proof that hydraulic fracturing pollutes drinking water.
Never mind that the paper hadn’t been peer reviewed, or that within a few months the EPA to backtrack and admit that its testing procedures were inadequate, suspending peer review altogether until new sampling could be completed. Just two months after the release of the draft report, EPA Region 8 administrator Jim Martin told a House panel in no uncertain terms that the agency had not established a “causal link” between hydraulic fracturing and water contamination.
Fast-forward to today. Shale opponents have now seized upon yet another “report” (from Cornell, where else?) that supposedly links poor infant health (specifically low birth weight) to natural gas production. And, once again, the paper has not yet undergone peer review — the very process that helps sort out, at least in theory, legitimate scientific conclusions from simple suppositions or even outright activism. In fact, left unmentioned by the activists cheering the release of the paper is the fact that the author, Elaine Hill, is a graduate student in applied economics and management — hardly a field that one would expect to include complex epidemiological assessments.
Andy Revkin at the New York Times – certainly no shill for the oil and gas industry! — has done a deep dive into the problem of jumping the gun on this kind of research, including the fact that opponents are now using Ms. Hill as some sort of “champion” of their cause. What Revkin uncovered, among many things, is that the activist group New Yorkers Against Fracking hired a PR firm (BerlinRosen Public Affairs) to promote the piece, and the firm sent out a pitch to the media about the paper, stating only that it was written by a “researcher at Cornell” — nothing about peer review, and nothing about the fact that the author is still a graduate student. Revkin asked BerlinRosen about why they were promoting a paper before peer review, to which the firm replied that Ms. Hill’s results raise “critical questions” that “should be discussed.”
Why is this worth noting? Because Ms. Hill herself told Mr. Revkin that her results are “preliminary” (that aspect was ignored by activists, either deliberately or inconveniently) and that she “does not want to rush it” in terms of publication. She also said it’s a “valid” point to suggest that her conclusions not be cited until peer review is complete — completely undermining the PR firm (on behalf of New Yorkers Against Fracking) that tried to do exactly the opposite.