Anti-Vaxxers, Anti-Frackers Show Similar Disregard for Science

Published March 18, 2015

How would you feel if you or your child became sick with a potentially deadly disease such as the measles, mumps, or whooping cough because the governor of your state banned the vaccines preventing these diseases in deference to a small yet vocal group of anti-vaccination activists who claimed these vaccines cause autism, even though the “science” they cite has been thoroughly discredited?

This scenario should sound absurd, because lawmakers ought never to base laws on bad science. Unfortunately, we don’t live in perfect world, and bad science has ruled the day in New York State, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has deferred to anti-fracking activists and their widely discredited claims.

Instead of putting New York’s economy first, Cuomo enacted a ban on hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.” As a result, Upstate New York’s economy continues to suffer from a debilitating economic anemia while states that have embraced fracking experience healthy, growing economies.

Despite a lackluster national economy, states that allow hydraulic fracturing have been bright spots among the blight. According to U.S. Census Bureau Director John H. Thompson, “mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction industries were the most rapidly growing part of our nation’s economy over the last several years.” As a result, 903,641 people now earn a living in the U.S. energy sector, where employment grew by 23.3 percent between 2007 and 2012.

None of this growth has occurred in New York, which has effectively banned fracking since 2008, even though the state sits atop the Marcellus Shale—the largest natural-gas producing formation in the United States that accounts for 40 percent of the nation’s shale gas.

It would make some sense if the ban on hydraulic fracturing in New York was based on sound science that shows the costs of fracking outweigh the benefits, but the report produced by the New York Department of Health (DOH) Cuomo used to justify the fracking ban is fraught with bad science that does not hold up to scientific scrutiny.

One of the problematic studies cited in the DOH report is from the Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH), which attempted to establish a connection between birth defects and hydraulic fracturing operations. The study, conducted by Dr. Lisa McKenzie, failed to correct for even the most basic factors, such as genetics or whether the mothers drank alcohol or smoked tobacco.

In addition, the CSPH researchers used proximity to natural gas wells as their metric for risk, failing to distinguish between conventional wells and unconventional wells; there is no way to determine whether the wells in question actually used high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

The study was so poorly conducted the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) disavowed it. Larry Wolk, the executive director of CDPHE, told pregnant mothers not to take the study seriously, and he warned the public could be easily misled by its findings. Unfortunately, Cuomo, who defended his decision to ban fracking by stating, “I am not a scientist,” may not have seen Wolk’s comments and thus was easily misled by the conclusions of the CSPH study.

Lawmakers have a responsibility to weigh the costs and the benefits of the policies they implement when based on the best available science, because public policy decisions often have profound effects on our lives. For the highest elected official in New York to base his decision to ban fracking on studies that have been thoroughly debunked by public health officials in other states is a disservice to all New Yorkers.

The evidence from states all around the country is in: Hydraulic fracturing is a safe and environmentally responsible way to increase oil and natural gas production. Cuomo’s fracking ban is like banning vaccines based on the misguided notion they cause autism. It’s an unscientific, discredited, and harmful decision.