EARL BAKER: Voters need the facts on energy crisis

Votes cast on November 8 here in Pennsylvania will have a significant impact on a wide array of key issues. But none are arguably as critical as the impacts of the election on our energy sector. With a key Senate race, 17 seats in the House of Representatives, and a gubernatorial election, voters’ choices will be critical to determining how Pennsylvania – the country’s third-largest net supplier of total energy to other states – tackles its energy strategy in the future.

Therefore, in order to make the best choices for the future of our state, voters need the facts. But it seems that everyday activists masquerading as academics have come up with a new and clever way to undermine the foundational pillar of Pennsylvania’s energy sector: oil and natural gas providers.

As an industry that is responsible for generating $78.4 billion toward Pennsylvania’s gross domestic product and supporting over 480,000 jobs in the state, it catches our attention whenever such negative assertions are made. The latest example is a report from an Ivy League school that, in contradiction to several other published studies from the same institution, has claimed that water contamination from fracking is an exposure pathway for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL).

Leukemia is something to take seriously – especially when it affects children, as this study alleges. And while I am not a health scientist or healthcare expert, I have gained valuable experience in the political realm on such issues as a former county commissioner and state senator. In that service, I came across many studies and reports that attempted to inform and educate voters and policymakers. I learned that by asking questions and looking for information, I could put the “headlines” into context and perspective.

For example, when reviewing such reports, it is important to note that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has found no situations where chemicals associated with fracking have entered groundwater or surface water. This finding has been bolstered by findings from other governmental agencies such as the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, as well as in a recent study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) journal: both of which found that water quality had been unaffected by natural gas development.

Furthermore, a similar academic study in 2018 from Penn State found that fracking posed “no major threats to groundwater” and actually found water quality to be improving in one of the most heavily drilled counties in the study.

Where then is the disconnect?

First, in the case of this Yale Public Health study on child leukemia occurrence, the researchers relied on a statistical model, not an actual measurement and analysis of environmental data. This has resulted in some questionable assumptions that were touted as fact. Statistical model versus data analysis is an important distinction not captured by the headlines.

What is worse, this same research outfit also previously found that water contamination from fracking occurs “rarely or episodically” and even admitted that “no study to date has found widespread contamination attributable to conventional oil and gas activity.” This seems to be an important detail and potential contradiction that should give us some reservations about simply accepting the headlines which studies like this produce.

The reality is in the best interest of the natural gas industry to commit and carry out careful procedures with numerous employees working on safety. Pennsylvania’s natural gas workers cooperate with governments at all levels local, state, and federal and its track record is reflective of such.

In recent years, many forms of science have unfortunately been politicized and climate science is no exception. Upholding high standards for public health and responsible energy development is important, but the desire for headlines such as this one, unfortunately, detracts from those efforts. The more scientific we can be in the fullest sense the more we will be able to deal with the energy issues we will, and need to, face in the future.

Earl Baker is a former three-term commissioner in Chester County and two-term State Senator.  In the Senate, he chaired the Labor and Industry Committee, and he was active in the County Commissioners Association.  He remains active in the Chester County Chamber and writes on business issues for a wide audience.

Author: Earl Baker
Publication: Daily Local News
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