Monday, July 30, 2012

Critics call Josh Fox on fracking and breast cancer charge A look behind the provocation in The Sky is Pink

During a recent visit to Capitol Pressroom, host Susan Arbetter asked me to separate the wheat from chaff in the debate over claims about the risks and merits of shale gas development. That subject is better suited for a book than a blog. But it is worth framing the debate in this context: Producing petroleum from rock using high volume hydraulic fracturing in tandem with horizontal drilling is a new and developing field, and its cumulative, long-term impacts are largely a matter of speculation, educated guesses, and unfinished study. It’s plain to see that technological and industrial advances in directional drilling and fracking has opened access to vast new domestic carbon reserves, including gas and oil. That holds the promise of reducing the country’s dependence on coal – an unquestionable polluter with well-known health detriments. But how do we know to what degree benefits of shale gas development are offset by risks? And how will each be fairly weighed in an impassioned debate colored by politics and ideology?

Both sides of the argument authoritatively cite a scant and inconclusive body of knowledge. Developing a more comprehensive scientific baseline on which to gauge risks is hurt by a lack of reporting requirements by the industry, which is exempt from many rules fundamental to gauge environmental impacts and protect public health.

Josh Fox
One of the most potent critics of the industry is Josh Fox, the filmmaker who galvanized the anti-fracking movement with Gasland, an Academy Award nominated film that premiered on HBO in 2010. Gasland depicts the natural gas industry as a reckless, uncaring, deceitful, and far-reaching exploiter of resources at the expense of public welfare and the environment. It’s an engrossing film with popular appeal, and to this day is a featured part of anti-fracking rallies lead by celebrities ranging from actor Alec Baldwin to song-writer Natalie Merchant. Gasland has become a natural target for industry, which has funded films like “Truthland” and other rebuttals in an attempt to discredit Fox and his work.

A main theme of Gasland, and of Fox’s follow-up short film, The Sky is Pink, is built around the risks of methane migration, a phenomenon when explosive gases move through the ground into enclosed spaces, sometimes with disastrous results. The gas industry typically blames methane migration on naturally occurring circumstances, without acknowledging that holes drilled into pressurized gas-baring zones thousands of feet deep can open pathways to aquifers and homes at the surface, despite efforts to seal them off. Fox produced the Sky is Pink partly to rebut industry criticism that the footage depicting methane migration in Gasland – notably tap water that erupts into a ffireball in Mike Markham’s sink -- was due to naturally occurring methane. In the film, Fox supports the flaming-faucet footage with documents and a lecture by Cornell Engineering professor (and industry scholar) Tony Ingraffia. Fox also compares the drilling industry’s denial of problems with the tobacco industry’s assertion, for decades, that smoking does not cause cancer. (Fox notes that Big Energy has hired the tobacco industry’s PR firm, Hill and Knowlton.) Had Fox left it at that, The Sky is Pink would have been an effective and persuasive spotlight on the industry’s attempt to cloud the facts. But he doesn’t. After making analogies between the tobacco and drilling industries, Fox states this:

In Texas, as throughout the United States, cancer rates fell. Except in one place: in the Barnett Shale. The five counties where there was the most drilling saw a rise in breast cancer throughout the counties.

Without further exploration or analysis, Fox ridicules a pink drilling rig. Presented in the context of the film, it’s emblematic of the disingenuousness of the industry’s attempts to solve everything with public relations, (which is indeed is an easy target for lampoon).

The approach is cinematically effective; the pink rig juxtaposed with the reference to the cancer registry data is sure to elicit a gasp from industry cynics. It also plays off the title of the film – The Sky is Pink – suggesting the preposterousness of the industry’s capacity to give a damn about the facts. These are deft executions by Fox as a filmmaker. But Fox also presents himself as a journalist; and the breast cancer reference has opened his entire work to a critical offensive not only from the industry scholars and discerning students of public and environmental health, but from the mainstream media.

Fox’s primary source of information, as noted in a follow-up defense of his work, was a report in the Denton Record Chronicle by Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe. The story, August 31, 2011, reports that the average rate of breast cancer in six counties rose from 58.7 cases per 100,000 people in 2005 to about 60.7 per 100,000 in 2008. The story adds that the rates are below the national average, and that researchers did not attribute a cause, although it might involve “many factors.”

Public records compiled from cancer registry data give a snapshot of cancers diagnosed in given places at given times. (I learned this from years of fist hand reporting on several statistically significant leukemia clusters over industrial TCE plumes under several neighborhoods in Broome County New York.) But they are not a tool intended for or capable of accounting for myriad risk factors and demographics necessary for a meaningful epidemiology study. Cancer exposures typically must be accounted for over time (prior to diagnosis). So patients’ histories, life styles, occupations, and migrations need to be factored in. Also, how can one risk be separated from another? Smoking? Diet? Age? Health Care access? Poverty level? Are people moving into the area with these risk factors from another area?

When taking into account all these kinds of factors, sometimes patterns emerge from cancer registry data that are invisible in the vagueness of the big picture; and sometimes patterns that seem significant on face value disappear. Yet Fox’s film – highlighting a map showing blocks of red over the Barnett Shale representing elevated breast cancer rates – fails to mention, much less account for, any of this. It’s the very kind of rhetorical recklessness that Fox blames on the industry, and it has prompted similar kinds of criticism

“Saying something causes breast cancer is like yelling fire in a theater. It should be only said when true,” states John Hanger, who headed Pennsylvania’s efforts to regulate the shale gas industry under Gov. Ed. Rendell. (Hanger was a primary pursuer of the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to order Cabot Oil and Gas to build a waterline to Dimock to compensate residents for an aquifer damaged by drilling-related methane migration.) You can read his blog on the Sky is Pink here.

Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist, author, and fracking opponent, defended Fox by noting that, just because something is not known conclusively to cause cancer, doesn’t mean that it should be excluded as a suspect. In her view, the numbers in Fox’s film warrant a closer look:

The larger point made in The Sky is Pink that there is something unusual about the longer-term breast cancer incidence patterns in the counties overlying the Barnett Shale where gas drilling is most intense. These patterns clearly need to be investigated further.
But does fracking cause cancer? The back and forth between those for and those against was predictable. Less predicable was backlash from an Associated Press reporter Kevin Begos, who called Fox on his lack of methodology. In his July 22 report, Begos cites, among others, Simon Craddock Lee, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas who characterized Fox’s reading of breast cancer rates as way off base. Lee called the claims of an increase "a classic case of the ecological fallacy" because they falsely suggest that breast cancer is linked to just one factor. In fact, diet, lifestyle and access to health care also play key roles.

I believe that Begos’ report reflects healthy (and growing) pressure from the mainstream news media to raise the bar of accountability on both sides for readers growing tired of a partisan back and forth and looking for more sophistication in reporting. Weighing the long-term environmental consequences of spills, water consumption, methane migration, waste production and disposal, truck traffic etc. is not simple – it requires manpower, reporting, transparency, and enforcement. Gauging effects on public health is even more problematic. Researchers must test changes in an elusive and migrant human population with logistical and cultural barriers to examination. The tools of epidemiology – statistics and probability – are abstractions that defy the craving for black and white arguments that easily suite the rhetorical purposes of either side of the argument. Assigning responsibility for dead fish, unhealthy air, biological fragmentation – can be politically charged. Epidemiology studies that connect human disease and mortality to industrial factors are sure to grab even more attention.

As Fox may (or may not) be learning, using incomplete data to make sweeping observations may do his cause more harm than good. That said, pressing for more information is a worthwhile pursuit. Lack of a clear picture of public health risks from fracking should not dampen public discussion that provokes the kind of study that eventually leads to answers.


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. As correctly cited in your post about The Sky is Pink film, Fox stated this:
    "In Texas, as throughout the United States, cancer rates fell. Except in one place: in the Barnett Shale. The five counties where there was the most drilling saw a rise in breast cancer throughout the counties."

    But Fox did not say that drilling causes breast cancer. He cited the coincidence, but he did not claim a cause.

    John Hanger, in his blog on The Sky is Pink, incorrectly accused Fox of claiming a cause: “Saying something causes breast cancer is like yelling fire in a theater. It should be only said when true,” said Hanger.

    To Mr. Hanger, I reply in kind, that accusations should only be said when they are true.

    While high-volume, slick-water, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) occurring deep underground is certainly complicated, the origins of human cancer are even more complicated, as is pinning down specific causes of individual cancers, as you correctly point out.

    Clearly, further studies are needed to identify the potential impacts of fracking (including all accompanying processes) on human health and safety, as well as the possible links between pollution of air/water/land and cancer. But such studies take time, and the industry is in a rush to drill.

    The NY Assembly passed a bill this year calling for a Health Impact Assessment study, and Senate Democrats introduced an amendment to environmental budget legislation that would have included even a broader study. Sadly, neither of these studies were approved for funding.

    It is a slap in the face to New Yorkers that neither our governor nor the Senate Republican majority will approve funding for a Health Impact Assessment prior to permitting drilling.

    For more on the Health Impact Assessment, please see my blog post: NY State Won't Fund Hydrofracking Health Impact Study.

    1. David, Thanks for your post. I've been away so sorry for the delay in responding.

      So what is Fox saying with his reference to breast cancer rates? That they raise flags? That they require more study? That they are inconclusive? That there are many variables and that drilling might factor in? Or chemicals (perhaps carcinogens plus others) produced by drilling (and many other industries) are found in unknown and varying degrees in the air and water around the vast footprint of the Barnett? Or that understanding exposure pathways is a critical step in understanding impacts from environmental cancer triggers? His simple quote, in the context of the tobacco industry cover up, the pacing of the film, and visuals including the pink rig, sends a message loud and clear: that shale gas drilling is the solitary factor associated with the high breast cancer rates.

      Journalists owe it to readers to raise these kinds of issues and to provoke discussion. Fox has done that. It’s my personal view that he has hurt himself by failing to do just a little more. In raising such a monumental connection with such plainly explosive implications, he was negligent in fleshing out what readers need to know about this picture. If he would have taken a few more minutes – even one minute – to explain the uncertainty involved and the many variables that have to be sorted through for a fair scientific analysis (even from one of his own experts); if he had given this part of the movie the attention that he gives methane migration (with a brief lecture by Tony Ingraffea); he would have been in a much more defensible position in this hyper-critical shale gas arena that invites swift attack.

      You might know that I’m not a Fox antagonist. I respect Josh’s work and the degree that it has shaped the discussion. I recommend it to friends and family who are becoming students of on shore drilling issues. I also advice that both Gasland and the Sky is Pink are gripping and one-sided film, and it I think Fox’s work too often becomes the seal of people with minds closed to further discussion. There is a lot of other work out there that can bring broad and varied perspectives to the issue of development and sustainability (and health) on micro and macro levels. The Prize, Daniel Yergen; End of Country, Seamus McGraw; Winning the Oil Endgame, Amory Lovins; Living Downstream, Sandra Steingraber; Run to Failure, Abrahm Lustgarten. (I will also note my book, Under the Surface, to a growing list of others.)

      Of course these works and others are fair game for criticism in the spirit of moving the discussion forward; and Fox, while an exceptional filmmaker, is no exception to the fire of public criticism that can temper his current and future work.

  3. Mr. Wilber, I hope you will respond to David Kowalski's post, which gets right to the heart of the issue: clearly, what Josh Fox said is true, and worthy of further analysis. Clearly, what John Hanger and Kevin Begos say or imply about him is false, and worthy of analysis, not sloppy approbation.

    Does correlation prover causality? No, and Josh Fox never said it did. Might it indicate causality? Yes, and it's worth checking out. Is the fact that we have simple correlation so far and not a causal link a sign that everything's OK? No, of course not.

    Given that we are in a period of natural gas glut, the rush to frack New York State under the pressure of oil and gas company money is not driven by an altruistic desire to serve the long-term good of the American people, but by a capitalist desire for short-term profits. Consequently, the arguments of Fox and Steingraber--slow down and check it out--are the purest, most conservative common sense.

    Remember, there are people out there willing to risk our lives for profit, using specious arguments: "No cancer yet, so it's safe!" Last week, at a TRUTHLAND forum in Buffalo, I congratulated Mr. Dennis Holbrook of Norse Energy for the new one-million share stock option awarded him by his employer, and noted that it would probably be worth a lot more if hydrofracking came to New York. I asked him if, twenty years from now, there's a demonstrable causal relation between fracking and breast cancer, he would be willing to turn over his profits to the people he had helped kill. He wouldn't answer--he said the question simply made no sense.

  4. This post was referenced on Andrew Revkine's August 2 NYT Dot Earth:
    Andi Gladstone, of the New York State Breast Cancer Network, had this response:

    The New York State Breast Cancer Network is the only network of community-based, survivor-driven breast cancer organizations in New York. Collectively our 25 member organizations reach over 100,000 New Yorkers each year with breast cancer support and education services in communities that stretch all the way from Buffalo to Long Island. Most of us in the Network leadership are breast cancer survivors and make it our business to learn from past public policy mistakes related to breast cancer (e.g. broad-based pesticide spraying in residential areas, DES fertility treatment, hormone replacement therapy). With the double-standard rhetoric supporting natural gas hydrofracking in New York State, we see another one coming.

    Here’s what we have to say about the current discussion regarding breast cancer rates in north Texas above the Barnett Shale: We do not believe in running from facts like fire in a theatre, we are hungry for facts. Thanks, but no thanks, for that Don’t worry your pretty little heads about it approach promoted by Andrew Revkin. We will take facts anytime, even if all the information is not yet in, if more investigation is called for, if only time will give us the definitive answers we need. We are grateful when people like Josh Fox and biologist Sandra Steingraber point out what is known: while breast cancer rates fell in the rest of Texas, they rose in north Texas where hydrofracking was underway. In highlighting this fact, Fox and Steingraber lead us to identifying research still needed before bringing hydrofracking into our New York water and air.

    About that burden of proof: please do not ask Josh Fox or Sandra Steingraber to prove that hydrofracking is not safe. Please ask the Chesapeake Energy Corporation to prove that it is safe. The burden of proof must be on industry and not on the potential victims and their defenders. Let’s see those independent, long-term, peer-review studies before inviting hydrofracking into our state.