- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The old saw about statistics — that, given enough spin, they can be used to support anything — is being increasingly applied to science, especially, critics say, when it comes to the fight over hydraulic fracturing.

Finding out who conducted a fracking study, and who funded it, has become as important as the results of the research itself as the powerful fossil fuel industry and media-savvy environmental movement spar to claim the scientific high ground.

On the one end, studies linking groundwater contamination and even birth defects to fracking are meeting with outraged incredulity by industry proponents and some scientists, who describe the research as barely concealed advocacy conducted by known foes of oil and gas development.

“Activists have spread misinformation about the science in an attempt to convince Americans that there is no way fracking can be done safely,” said House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chair Lamar Smith at a Capitol Hill hearing late last week.

“The administration relies on questionable studies and reports that are paid for, peer-reviewed by and disseminated by a network of environmentalists with an ideological agenda,” the Texas Republican said.

Take New York. Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo agreed to a statewide fracking ban after Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker held up a study at a December 17 cabinet meeting, and said he would not live in a community or allow his child to play in a school field near a hydraulic fracturing operation.

Not only was the child hypothetical — Mr. Zucker has no children — but so was the research, according to a “white paper” released Thursday by the pro-industry group Energy in Depth. The study cited by Mr. Zucker was not only conducted in part by anti-fracking advocacy groups but was peer-reviewed by three fracking opponents, including Ithaca College professor Sandra Steingraber, a founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking.

“Indeed, the Cuomo administration’s report relies on highly questionable sources, including research papers with strong ties to the fringe activists who helped hasten the ban in New York,” said the white paper, “A Look Inside New York’s Anti-Fracking Echo Chamber.” “Yet these same sources were misrepresented as purveyors and curators of ‘bona fide’ science by Cuomo officials.”

Bias both ways?

But anti-fracking advocates counter that their critics are guilty of the bias in the other direction. New Yorkers Against Fracking called the white paper a “hollow, self-serving attack,” noting that EID is funded by the Independent Petroleum Association of America, and accusing the industry of “misinformation propaganda.”

“The oil and gas industry is simply trying to deny and distract attention [as] the growing evidence for fracking-related impacts — earthquakes, water contamination, dangerous air pollution and negative health impacts all across the country — grow ever more desperate,” said NYAF in a statement.

The anti-fracking group also cited a February report from the Public Accountability Initiative examining “how the oil and gas industry presents science about fracking, including Energy in Depth, and found that the industry distorts science to deceive the public and policymakers.”

Then again, the Public Accountability Initiative isn’t exactly bias-free either. The nonprofit is funded in part by the Park Foundation, a liberal nonprofit heavily involved in the anti-fracking fight, and also receives financial support from the Sunlight Foundation, which is funded by the Open Society Institute, part of the network funded by liberal billionaire George Soros.

What’s more, the first national director of the Sunlight Foundation was Fordham University law professor Zephyr Teachout, who ran against Mr. Cuomo on an anti-fracking platform in the 2014 Democratic primary. Ms. Teachout received a larger-than-expected 33 percent of the primary vote, which critics say influenced Mr. Cuomo’s decision to allow the ban.

So whose science can be trusted? Maybe nobody’s, which is why disclosure is so important, EID’s western director, Simon Lomax, told the House committee.

“It’s not a question of whether people can advocate for a political viewpoint that they believe in. Of course they can,” Mr. Lomax said. “But if they’re going to try to represent themselves as independent researchers when they’re actually running campaigns to try to ban hydraulic fracturing, that’s something that needs to be disclosed.”

Democratic and Republican lawmakers jousted repeatedly over the quality and integrity of the science for and against fracking. Mr. Smith, citing what he said were unjustified critiques of fracking in his home state of Texas, said that even the Obama administration EPA has adopted an “agenda-driven approach” to connect fracking to groundwater contamination.

“Their refusal to accept good science knows no bounds, which is why we should be suspect of other findings by the EPA,” he said.

But Rep. Paul Tonko, New York Democrat, accused Republicans of being selective in their outrage over questionable scientific findings.

“I could point out that bad information on climate change or on the cost of the Affordable Care Act — which some refer to as Obamacare — seems to be driving all kinds of voter choices around our country,” said Mr. Tonko at the hearing. “And I don’t think my friends on the other side of the aisle are going to work very hard to set those records straight.”

• Valerie Richardson can be reached at vrichardson@washingtontimes.com.

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