Earthworks Releases Air Quality Report for Noble Co., Ohio that Doesn’t Actually Include Any Air Quality Data

by Dan Alfaro, Energy in Depth

Earthworks and Clean Air Task Force (CATF) released a new “report” this week on air quality in Noble County, Ohio (among others) that is based entirely on anecdotes and debunked anti-fracking talking points rather than recent academic research and data showing emissions near Utica Shale development are protective of public health.
In a blatant attempt to alarm the public – and members of the media – the group relies on “Forward Looking Infrared” (FLIR) images as the basis of its report, a scare tactic it has employed repeatedly over the past several years.
The ultimate red herring, FLIR videos and images are used to deliberately mislead the public on emissions from a variety of oil and natural gas facilities. Anti-fossil fuel activists have even admitted that their FLIR videos are not backed by scientific evidence of any sort. Most recently, an Earthworks operative attempted to use FLIR footage to paint Oklahoma’s oil and gas sites as spewing “toxic pollution into the air, like an invisible oil spill.”
In a defining statement, Earthworks’ Hilary Lewis admitted during an interview with the Kingfisher Times & Free Press that FLIR images featured in an Earthworks/Coalition for Oklahoma Renewable Energy report offered no scientific data to support the report’s claims about Oklahoma oil and gas site emissions. As the Times & Free Press reported:
No air quality tests were conducted in connection with the infrared drone photographs to quantify what amount of methane or other pollutants, if any, were being emitted at the named well sites.”
EID and those in the scientific community have covered these attempts to distort scientific evidence (or lack thereof) extensively over the years, and as our recent FLIR fact sheet shows, there is no merit to their use as evidence of anything other than deliberately mislead the public:
Earthworks has been using FLIR videos as the focal point of its recycled “Threat Maps” project, a oft-regurgitated effort designed to influence Congress to adopt costly and duplicative Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Bureau of Land Management methane regulations.
Earthworks has absolutely no interest in actually collecting air quality data to scientifically support its alarmist claims, preferring to work backward from a conclusion to achieve its real goal – something they revealed in a recent tweet.
To see how FLIR videos are misleading, Energy in Depth spoke to  Dr. Ram Hashmonay, an international expert in the implementation of optical remote sensing who is credited with co-inventing modern radial plume mapping technology:
Here above, infrared footage of a steaming tea kettle. While it looks quite frightening in the image, we know the plum of steam means it’s tea time, not some toxic cloud to run from. There is a reason Earthworks and CATF rely on these videos – they can be quite frightening without proper context.
As Eagle Environmental air compliance specialist Trisha Fanning told Western Wire:
“The bottom line is that they are misleading, and they are misleading on the scare tactic. Optical gas imaging is nothing more than that, it’s imaging,” she continued, saying that individuals without proper FLIR training and the understanding of many other variables could easily misinterpret what the camera sees.”
Just as far removed from actual scientific evidence as the FILR images, the Earthworks/CATF report also claims that oil and natural gas development is somehow responsible for increased asthma attack rates – ignoring actual research that demonstrates otherwise. Just across the border in Pennsylvania, the state’s Department of Health data show that age-adjusted asthma hospitalizations rates in counties where oil and gas development is taking place are far lower than nine counties with no shale gas production at all. Asthma hospitalization rates in Pennsylvania’s most heavily drilled counties have also fallen considerably since the shale revolution began.
To place blame on oil and gas activity on higher asthma rates is folly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) latest asthma data, rural Vermont – a state that has completely banned fracking – actually has far higher asthma rates than the most heavily developed states in the country: Pennsylvania Texas, California, Alaska, North Dakota, and, yes, Ohio.
Facts show that it is because of increased natural gas (use made possible by fracking) that nitrogen oxide – a major ozone precursor – has decreased dramatically in recent years. That’s why EPA data show ozone levels are decreasing.
The “case-studies” featured in the report, like the one in Noble County, Ohio are not based in science or new evidence, but rather old data used in their efforts to rehash a failed attempt to update the U.S. EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS):
“EPA data shows that as a whole Noble County, despite its agrarian nature exemplified by the Smith’s farm, ozone pollution is so high that it barely meets federal standards (which is far from clean air).”
Bottom line, Noble County is meeting federal ozone standards. The levels Earthworks and other groups are seeking are so ridged the American Action Forum found that 100 national and state parks might not meet their favored NAAQS standards. The lists included Death Valley National Park, Sequoia National Park, Big Bend National Park and Cape Cod National Seashore. That’s why the effort was opposed across the deck by elected officials and regulatory agencies across the country, including Ohio’s EPA.
Ozone forming emissions across the country have been cut in half since 1980, according to the U.S. EPA, and are expected to drop by another 36 percent over the next few years.
Earthworks and CATF, while focusing on stale data and conjecture, ignore the findings of the most recent study on air quality – one that specifically draws from actual scientific findings from Noble County. Last year, the University of Cincinnati gathered air samples near production sites in three of the top producing oil and natural gas counties in Ohio — Guernsey, Noble and Belmont — to examine air quality near natural gas extraction. And according to a media report, lead researcher Dr. Erin Hayes told local elected officials during a recent presentation on the study that “none of the air sample averages exceeded EPA levels of health concern” after being evaluated for 63 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and formaldehyde.
The UC study is one of many studies based on actual air measurements and actual scientific research (read: not misleading FLIR videos) that have found emissions from oil and gas production sites are below the threshold that would indicate any threat to public health. These studies, uncoincidentally, have been ignored by Earthworks, CATF and other activist groups, whose claims of public health harms from fracking-related activities rely on “associations” rather than proof of causation.
According to EPA data, oil and gas related methane emissions have dropped dramatically, with methane emissions decreased by 14 percent since 1990, while natural gas and oil production have increased 50 and 21 percent, respectively, during that time. Associated volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions have also declined since the shale revolution took off.
It’s important to note that these decreases are largely a direct result of voluntarily measures such as those by ExxonMobil subsidiary XTO Energy serving as a recent example of the industry’s best practices and efforts to further curb emissions from the development process.
Clearly, for Earthworks and CATF, more unnecessary regulations are the end game for their efforts, as they state in their conclusion:
“Despite the availability of inexpensive solutions, oil and gas operators cannot be relied upon to reduce their emissions voluntarily, even when they clearly promise to do so. We need enforceable government safeguards to protect public health and the environment.”
At the end of the day, as UC and countless others demonstrate via actual scientific data, the oil and gas industry – following best practices – is already contributing to the decline in ozone related emissions. Use of natural gas has given the U.S. – and Ohio – cleaner air than we’ve had in decades. There will always be groups – like Earthworks and CATF – that will venture far from the path of scientific evidence to achieve their desired goal of a world without fossil fuels. As they’ve demonstrated here again, they have no problems ignoring science in favor of scare tactics to achieve that goal.

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