New York state’s controversial new fracking ban was bolstered in part by research written and peer-reviewed by scientists with ties to the anti-fracking movement – drawing criticism that their views were not disclosed when the ban was announced last month.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration made New York the second state, after Vermont, to ban the oil-and-gas extraction process of hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking.
At the time of the announcement, Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker cited a study published in Environmental Health in October 2014 that warned about “concentrations of volatile compounds” near these drilling sites. He noted the paper, which he included in a presentation, showed “elevated levels of eight different chemicals” in air samples – he said despite some weaknesses in the report, the issue deserves “further study.”
The study also was cited along with several others in a broader state report, “A Public Health Review of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing for Shale Gas Development,” released in December. That report concluded that, because of uncertainties over the health and environmental impacts of fracking, the practice “should not proceed” in New York.
When the governor announced the ban on Dec. 17, he said: "I think it’s our responsibility to develop an alternative … for safe, clean economic development.”
But Simon Lomax -- western director for Energy In-Depth, a public outreach campaign funded by the pro-fracking Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) – complained that the October study was both written and peer-reviewed by “activists.”
He said this wasn't disclosed. “As advocates, these people are perfectly entitled to their political views, as we all are under the First Amendment,” he told FoxNews.com. “But when advocates hide their political views and subvert the peer-review process to get a questionable research paper published, that violates all kinds of scientific standards.”
One of the three peer-reviewers is Sandra Steingraber, a biologist and environmental advocate who is also co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking. Two others, Robert Oswald and Jerome Paulson, are vocal opponents. Several of the study's authors, though not all, are known fracking skeptics and have ties to groups that oppose the practice -- including Denny Larson, study co-author and director of Global Community Monitor, which is sharply critical of fracking.
Reached by FoxNews.com, Steingraber and Oswald said they did not disclose their positions because they have taken no money from the movement. Further, they do not work directly with any of the authors or have academic relationships with them. As scientists, they said, they have found evidence that fracking creates health hazards, and it is their professional and ethical obligation to speak out about it.
“You can’t be neutral when people are being harmed,” said Steingraber. “That’s like telling people who did studies on the carcinogenic effects of tobacco smoke to be neutral about smoking.”
Steingraber was arrested for civil disobedience in October during an ongoing protest over the storage of natural and liquefied petroleum gases in the salt caverns at Seneca Lake in New York.
“I am speaking out precisely because of the evidence – the evidence is driving our conclusions and it my moral obligation as a biologist to make sure people are kept out of harm’s way,” she added. As for her ability to review studies like the one in Environmental Health, she said, “I think we are all proud of our ability to be conservative and analytical and absolutely objective about the data. I look at the data and call it as I see it.”
But Lomax said the validity of the science is called into question when peer-reviewers may be predisposed to a certain outcome. “It’s not sound science,” he said.
He noted the journal’s own editorial standards are clear on disclosing “non-financial competing interests.” The journal says it adheres to the standards set forth by Bio Med Central. Those say authors should not only disclose financial interests but also “political, personal, religious, ideological, academic, and intellectual competing interests.”
Though Lomax is tied to the oil-and-gas industry, he said, “I know the difference between a good, fair effort towards advancing the scientific knowledge of the subject matter and activists who write their own talking points and misrepresent that as science.”
Calls and emails to the Cuomo’s office and the state Department of Health were not returned.
Oswald, a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell University, who has written extensively on the dangers of fracking, is an admitted opponent and also peer-reviewed the study. He told FoxNews.com he did not believe he needed to disclose his positions beforehand.
“What Lomax said is absolute and complete nonsense – anybody who has the expertise to review a paper has some opinion on the subject,” he said. “I’ve reviewed thousands of papers and I always have some sort of opinion of the area, but it does not really stand in the way of my objective view.”
In New York, the target area for possible oil extraction is on the border with Pennsylvania, in the Marcellus Shale region. Supporters like the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York opposed the ban because they believed the drilling would have brought jobs to an economically depressed area.
"The science that [officials with the state health department] did is junk science,” Dan Fitzsimmons, president of the Landowners Coalition, said in a rally after Cuomo’s decision to ban. "It was all about what may be, what might be, what could be. It wasn't the actual science of the day."
He told FoxNews.com he does not believe the public knows about the interwoven connections between the authors and reviewers and activist groups that are often behind the studies.
“They do the studies to get the results they want,” he said. “They are not going to be objective, they have an agenda.”