More Natural Gas Opposition Parading as Science

Uni Blake
Environmental Consultant – Toxicologist
Master’s Degree in Environmental Toxicology – American University


A recent research paper entitled Natural Gas Operations and Infant Health, by the Department of Applied Economics and Management Ph.D. student Elaine L. Hill, attempted to identify a causal relationship between natural gas operations and infant health.  While admittedly a “work in progress,” the report largely ignored other factors that should have been addressed in any objective study.  Ms. Hill also relies upon other biased work (e.g., Bamberger and Oswald) to build the case for her own conclusions and pushes forward a great deal of unsubstantiated speculation by other like-minded researchers.  These include discredited sources such as Al Armendariz (author of what she refers to as the Ramon Alvarez report, but he was the only recipient) and Theo Colborn.  Finally, the report is filled with unsourced rhetorical statements that illustrate its unreliability.

Problems with the Paper’s Premise

The empirical method Hill employed was the differences-in-differences approach, which examines the differences in the predetermined birth measures over time (before and after gas well development) and the distance from a permitted developing gas well, in a population of mothers who had singleton births.  She utilized birth measures, including low birth weight (LBW), AGPAR scores and premature births, as health indicators.  The author also examined some confounding relationships that could have an impact on the results in an attempt to ensure the research data would be considered valid.

The hypothesis the paper set out to prove was that mothers who delivered singletons, and lived close to natural gas production, had poor standard birth measures (low birth weight, premature birth, small for gestational age data and 5 minute APGAR scores).  Other data was obtained from Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) natural gas well records and vital statistics sources.  The distances from the wells examined were within radii of 1.5 km, 2 km and 2.5 km.  A population size of 1,069,699 over a seven year period (2003 to 2010) was used.  The sample size for mothers exposed to gas development within 2.5 km was 2,437.

The report’s introduction immediately signaled where it was going, with a discussion of natural gas industry exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and the Clean Water Act (CWA), and no concurrent mention of extensive state regulation.  It also included a number of baseless suppositions regarding natural gas development, indicating, for example, “serious environmental and health concerns have emerged regarding that may outweigh the perceived benefits of the technique.”  There is a source cited for this assertion (the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, 2009) but when it is checked the word “health” doesn’t appear and there is nothing else even remotely close to Hill’s statement to be found there.  So much for sourcing.

Hill also states the purpose of the research was to “shed light on the matter” by investigating the causal relationship between natural gas development and infant health in Pennsylvania.  She also suggested her research could illuminate the adverse effects of pollution on fetal health, noting newborns make good research subjects because of the immediate cause and effect relationships between exposure and health effect (infant health indicators).  She also states her work could prove the EPA study Evaluation of Impacts to Underground Sources of Drinking Water by Hydraulic Fracturing (2004) was erroneous when she says it concluded “natural gas development” was safe.  She further claimed “growing anecdotal evidence is suggesting otherwise” and “the political environment from 2005 until 2010 allowed for nationwide regulatory exemptions.”

While it is true that pollution is a risk factor for LBW, most of the studies Hill referenced examined the LBW in relation to measurable pollutant levels.  The levels were then used to establish definitive and completed pathways and cause and effect relationships.  This study does not establish any pathways.  Rather, it only offers a vague causal relationships between air and water pollution and natural gas development that may not exist at all. The supposed relationships developed in Hill’s research rely upon very incomplete comparisons.  Consider the following examples.

Visit to learn more about the flaws in this study.

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Comment by karen brown on August 2, 2012 at 5:33pm

It is quite evident more research needs done from other avenues.  Don't you think the effects over the past 5 years of what we eat, drink and possibly alchol, tobacco and drugs that are increasing in the young women of child bearing age may also have an effect and how these women have taken care of themselves while they are pregnant could possibly be a factor? There are a lot of teen mothers out there, more than there were 5 to 10 years ago.

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