In early June 2018 the BMJ (British Medical Journal) published an editorial on the health dangers of fracking. This was immediately taken up by some environmentalists and anti-frackers as confirmation that fracking is simply too dangerous and a risk to health. It was written by two professors of public health; David McCoy and Patrick Saunders, both from the left-wing medical pressure group MEDACT . This is the third foray against fracking by MEDACT. On 30th March 2015 they launched the first edition of Health and Fracking in London.
As The Times pointed out it was heavily dependent on the work of a Mike Hill from Lancashire, who is an engineer who has made many highly dubious claims of long experience in the oil and gas industry. The launch was not well-attended but there were three elderly visitors, the late Nick Grealy, Ken Wilkinson, who worked as an engineer on rigs for 12 years, and myself who spent a few years as an exploration geologist. Our questions unsettled the panel, who were not able to give any substance to their claims of fracking being bad for health. They could not cite any health effects of the 2000 oil and gas wells in England. The supposed health effects all involved chemicals that are not permitted in the UK, something the panel did not seem to know.
In 2016 Medact revised the report and toned down their claims.
In their key points they state
‘Based on current evidence it is not possible to conclude that there is a strong association between shale gas related pollution and negative local health effects’.
Having stated that they then go on to contradict themselves saying
‘In particular, there are risks of (i) adverse reproductive outcomes due to exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals’
This completely ignores the fact that these are specifically forbidden under EU and UK law as can be seen in paragraph 4 of this link
Citing chemicals that are not permitted is hardly a public health concern! In full their health concerns are:
Of particular note are: a) the risk of adverse reproductive outcomes due to exposure to endocrinedisrupting chemicals which can be potent even at relatively low levels; b) the risk of respiratory effects resulting from ozone and smog formation, which may affect communities living at a distance from oil and gas extraction sites; and c) stress, anxiety, mistrust, fear and other psycho-emotional effects arising from nuisance impacts, as well as actual and perceived social and economic disruption.
The second two are both tenuous and the third –stress and psycho-emotional effects etc- is particularly tenuous due to the campaigns of anti-fracking groups who play on fears of health issues.
When it comes to the BMJ editorial they struggle to give any argument of substance on the health dangers of fracking
“Nonetheless, although shale gas production may not be a population level health threat on the scale of tobacco, sugar, alcohol, or motor vehicle pollution, some evidence shows that it increases the risk of negative health and environmental outcomes, including increased risk of cancer, adverse birth outcomes, respiratory disease, and mental wellbeing.567891011”
The words “some evidence” are revealing, especially as they cite the Colorado claims on birth effects , which have been dismissed by Public Health England, who are a statutory consultee on every shale gas application. A summary of the limitations of this evidence can be seen on this blog post.
The best they can claim are the postulated effects on Climate Change;
“The greater concern, however, is that shale gas is a fossil fuel that will aggravate climate change.”.
Note that this ignores all the old claims of earthquakes, water and air pollution etc. Probably that is because these claims have been shown to be fictitious. Concern about climate change, (while valid) is not a direct public health issue of concern for either the BMJ, or medical practitioners.
Friends of the Earth give disproved claims against fracking
The editorial also comments about the supposed fracking ‘moratorium’ in Scotland. This policy was a source of discontent for the authors of the engineering report that was commissioned by the Scottish Government. That report in fact found that the process of shale gas extraction was low risk, and that there was no technical reason to stop development. The decision by the Scottish Parliament was a political, rather than a technical or health matter.
The legal challenge made by INEOS was based on the scientific evidence, and in fact, the SNP are now denying that there is such a moratorium or ban. Presumably this is because a judicial review would have be decided on hard evidence, rather than political gestures.
This BMJ article has been spun in the Westwood-sponsored Talk Fracking
Text of the BMJ article.
David McCoy, professor of global public health1, Patrick Saunders, visiting professor of public health2
Correspondence to: D McCoy email@example.com
The scale of harm to health is uncertain, but the danger of exacerbating climate change is not
In October 2017, the Scottish parliament voted in favour of its government’s decision1 to extend a moratorium on shale gas production, often colloquially referred to as “fracking,” that had been placed in 2015. This followed an extensive public consultation and the government commissioning six reports on unconventional oil and gas extraction that covered economic effects; decommissioning, site restoration, and aftercare of industrial sites; climate change; seismic activity; health effects; and community level effects from transportation.2
Despite this thorough process, the petrochemical multinational INEOS took the Scottish government to court on the grounds that the effective ban on shale gas production is “unlawful” and that ministers have misused their power and made “very serious errors.” INEOS has also applied for financial compensation.3 Meanwhile, central government argues that shale gas will enhance the UK’s energy security, create jobs, and boost the economy and that “world class regulation” will keep communities and the environment safe.4
Arguments continue between those who advocate the benefits of shale gas and those who claim it is harmful and unnecessary. But who is right?
Like many industrial activities, shale gas extraction will produce waste and pollution, including hazardous matter that can damage both human health and the environment. And although much activity takes place underground, it will affect the aesthetics of the landscape, disrupt the local social and economic ecosystem, and produce extra traffic, noise, and light pollution. It may also lead to seismic activity.
Importantly, the potential harms of shale gas production will disproportionately affect local communities, which is why government and industry have provided various financial incentives for local communities and talked up the benefits of local investment and job creation.
But much disagreement arises from the difficulty in quantifying the risks and potential harms with any precision. The production of hazards and their effects on health and the environment will depend on multiple factors including how many wells are drilled and over what land area; the size and proximity of local populations; how the industry behaves and is regulated; and site specific geological, topographical, meteorological, and socioeconomic factors. The same degree of uncertainty exists for the estimation of benefits.
Evidence from the United States, where there has been the most experience of shale gas production, needs to be applied to the UK with care. The US has different geology, geography, population density, and topography, as well as a different energy market.
Nonetheless, although shale gas production may not be a population level health threat on the scale of tobacco, sugar, alcohol, or motor vehicle pollution, some evidence shows that it increases the risk of negative health and environmental outcomes, including increased risk of cancer, adverse birth outcomes, respiratory disease, and mental wellbeing.567891011
The greater concern, however, is that shale gas is a fossil fuel that will aggravate climate change. Although it may offer some environmental benefit if produced and used efficiently, and if it displaces “dirtier” sources of energy like coal from the energy mix, this does not hold true for countries like the UK that have already phased out coal. Furthermore, methane (the main component of shale gas) is a potent greenhouse gas that leaks directly into the atmosphere at different points in the production and supply line, producing an additional global warming effect.
A recent study that integrated the environmental, economic, and social aspects of shale gas production to assess its overall sustainability concluded that the UK’s future electricity mix would be more sustainable with a lower rather than higher share of shale gas.12 Other analyses indicate that shale gas production would be incompatible with the EU’s climate targets.13 Meanwhile, a global rise in atmospheric methane concentrations since 2006 has caused alarm among climate scientists with evidence that the oil and gas industry is a major contributor.14
In short, the argument that shale gas is relatively clean and can assist with our transition to a sustainable energy system is thin, if not hollow. It also implies an unacceptable indifference from proponents of the industry to the global threat posed by climate change. In its 2017 Statement on the State of the Global Climate, the World Meteorological Organisation notes that climate change is already claiming lives and destroying livelihoods and has “eradicated decades of developments gains in small islands in the Caribbean.”15 Around 30% of the world’s population is estimated to live in climatic conditions that deliver potentially deadly temperatures at least 20 days a year,16 and 23.5 million people were displaced owing to weather related disasters in 2016.17
Although we can’t be certain about the scale of harm that shale gas production will bring to local communities and the immediate environment, it will exacerbate climate change. And on these grounds alone, the risks clearly and considerably outweigh any possible benefits.
Competing interests: We have read and understood BMJ policy on declaration of interests and declare that DM is the former Director of Medact, a public health charity that campaigns for ‘a safer, fairer and better’ world. Both DM and PS were co-authors of two health impacts assessments published by Medact on shale gas production.
Provenance and peer review: Commissioned not peer reviewed.
(References removed see article in BMJ. I apologise for the lack of references but I failed to copy the whole article when it was not behind a paywall)
The BMJ attracted one response from Ken Wilkinson, who has been adept at debunking anti-fracking claims.
I am concerned that Medact seem to continue to misrepresent the well-established, and safe practice of hydraulic fracturing. In 2015 they cited clear links between hydraulic fracturing (HF) and health concerns. After many complaints (one from me) they updated their conclusions in 2016 to state ‘based on current evidence it is not possible to conclude that there is a strong association between shale gas related pollution and negative local health effects’. (See ‘Key points’ https://www.medact.org/2016/resources/reports/shale-gas-production-in-en…)
The situation is under constant review by Public Health England. They are a statutory consultee for any frack application. They have consistently stated ‘PHE has reviewed the literature on the potential public health impacts of exposures to chemical and radioactive pollutants as a result of shale gas extraction. We conclude that the currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health in the vicinity of shale gas extraction sites will be low if shale gas extraction is properly run and regulated’ https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploa… The Medact statement that ‘some evidence shows that it increases the risk of negative health and environmental outcomes, including increased risk of cancer, adverse birth outcomes, respiratory disease, and mental wellbeing’ is not supported by credible evidence. The studies that support these have all been rejected as bad science by PHE.
In any case the chemicals that are cited in the US based studies are not permitted in the UK anyway. Only ‘non hazardous chemicals’ are permitted by the regulator, the Environment Agency. This is to comply with UK and EU law. Fugitive emissions are similarly not permitted. As such any (flawed) US studies have no relevance in the UK.
The argument about climate change is not relevant for the BMJ. In fact the Climate Change committee have stated that HF gas is acceptable as long as it displaces imports. Imported gas would have a higher GHG footprint than locally produced well regulated shale gas. The combination of renewables and gas is the reason that the UK (and the US) have dramatically decreased GHG emissions.
Similarly the fact that INEOS is taking the Scottish Government to court is an indication of the poor decision made. After a full scientific review, the expert advice given was that shale gas extraction was low risk. The decision was made for SNP political reasons, rather than technical ones. I am sure that the BMJ would advocate that evidence based science should dictate medical decision making. In fact the SNP have retracted from this position and have declared that there is no ban when the matter got to the courtroom. https://www.scotsman.com/news/politics/snp-accused-of-misleading-voters-…
Competing interests: No competing interests
08 June 2018
Retired Engineer and teacher
It does seem that the BMJ has allowed Medact to let off another damp squib, in their failed attempt to demonstrate that fracking is a health threat. Perhaps it shows there are no arguments against fracking, unless one takes the most pessimistic view of Climate Change.