Alec Baldwin and Fracking Opponents Need to Check the Facts

Those against hydraulic fracking need to get their facts straight before they make claims against the natural gas industry.

A worker steps through a maze of hoses at a remote fracking site run by Halliburton for natural-gas producer Williams in Rulison, Colo. in 2009.

Michael Lynch is the president and director of global petroleum service at Strategic Energy & Economic Research.

Alec Baldwin has now joined the antifracking crowd with a piece in the Huffington Post that describes an antifracking event hosting, among others, Josh Fox, who made the widely debunked pseudo-documentary Gasland.  He states that the industry refused to attend or "participate," but it's not clear if they would have been allowed any serious forum.

Now, I don't take offense at his ignoring my earlier post on the lack of credibility of many of the antifracking claims, but there have been a spate of articles focused on the claims of some activists, including Josh Fox. For example, the AP investigated the claim that breast cancer rates were higher in the six counties near the Barnett Shale and found it to be untrue. He initially claimed the Centers for Disease Control had made the statement, but when this was found to be untrue, he cited a small paper that used a reporter who was suing the natural gas industry.

This seems to be a classic case of the great circle of citations. A search on the web finds many sites that reference the claim that breast cancer cases rose, without citations, that mostly trace back to environmental or antifracking groups, while serious journalists have been primarily writing to debunk Fox's claims. 

[See a collection of political cartoons on energy policy.]

Maybe my tombstone will someday say, "Look at the data," except that seems to be wasted on the majority of pundits and activists (including some who agree with me, of course). I went to the Texas Cancer Registry website (it's very nice and easy to use) and downloaded the data for breast cancer from 2005-2009 for the counties of Bosque, Dallas, Denton, Hamilton, Hood, and Johnson. Three of them do show rates for the period that are higher than the state's average, but only by 5-10 percent; two show falling rates (slightly), two show rising rates (slightly), and two don't have data over time. And only Dallas county has over 1,000 cases per year, with Denton the only additional county that has over 100 cases (about 350) per year.

Opposition to fracking increasingly seems to be relying on scare tactics, with activists blithely repeating factoids they like with little effort to check the raw data or even the mainstream press. Understandably, someone like Alec Baldwin doesn't have much time to research this issue (I just spent a whole hour!), and I certainly don't want to suggest that people in Hollywood shouldn't lend their star power to controversies—they have the same right to their opinions as the rest of us. But they also have the same responsibility to check their facts. 

As with any industrial activity, hydraulic fracturing of shale should be done in an environmentally responsible fashion, and regulators should monitor emissions. But by making false claims, activists not only damage their own credibility, they distract from actual environmental issues that require amelioration.

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