Friends of the Earth/Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) disagreement

With regard to the disagreement between the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) and Friends of the Earth over FoE’s fracking leaflet, I have just sent the ASA press office this email:

Dear ASA,

Following your comments about the Friends of the Earth claims about fracking expressed in their leaflet, I would like to know, as I mentioned on my tweet yesterday, what criticism of their evidence you have that led you to the view that their views are unsubstantiated.

Looking at the FoE website, I see that they cite this as part of the evidence supporting their claims about fracking.

Quote: “84% of public health studies contain findings that indicate public health hazards, elevated risks, or adverse health outcomes; 69% of water quality studies contain findings that indicate potential, positive association, or actual incidence of water contamination; and 87% of air quality studies contain findings that indicate elevated air pollutant emissions and/or atmospheric concentrations.”

Additionally, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report released in December 2016 finds “cases of impacts on drinking water at each stage in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle. Impacts cited in the report generally occurred near hydraulically fractured oil and gas production wells and ranged in severity, from temporary changes in water quality, to contamination that made private drinking water wells unusable”.

Thirdly, this report finds high regulatory standards in OSHA, NIOSH and EPA that are often not noted in UK reports. The report also stated that “several reviewed papers and reports concluded fracking could not be conducted safely. These assessments emphasise the inherent dangers the industry presents over the short, medium and long-term to public health directly and through global climate change impacts”.

The report reaches three conclusions:

The evidence base for robust regulation and good industry practice is currently absent. There are multiple serious challenges surrounding location, scale, monitoring and data deficits facing regulators overseeing onshore UGE and fracking in the UK.

the evidence from peer-reviewed papers suggests fracking in the UK will not be effectively regulated. It is highly likely that regulatory agencies may lack the staffing and resources necessary to monitor and enforce effective regulation of the industry.

US and UK peer-reviewed analyses and EU law identify both the precautionary principle and prevention as keys to dealing with fracking. This is underpinned by findings from the peer-reviewed public health literature that already identifies significant hazards and major potential risks from the industry.

This seems to me to be more than adequate evidence to support FoE’s claims against fracking, including the claims cited by yourselves. I would therefore like to know what particular concerns you have.

If you are unable to explain what concerns you have about FoE’s claims, or are not able to do so convincingly, I would have to conclude that you are actually taking a political position against FoE and possibly against criticism of fracking in general and the various organisations making those criticisms.

I would of course broadcast widely such a conclusion via social media etc.

I look forward to your reply on this matter.

Many thanks

Robin Whitlock

However, I then found out that Lord Smith of Finsbury, Chair of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) council, previously chaired the Task Force on Shale Gas:

The Task Force on Shale Gas overwhelmingly cleared fracking as being safe for the UK.

This seemed to me to offer a strong smell of bias. HOWEVER, having tweeted this to the ASA, they were quick to email me back and state that Lord Smith had declared his interest in fracking and took no part in the FoE case.

What do you think? Does that clear the ASA of bias or not?

Another update to this saga:

Here is a statement received from Matt Smith, Press Officer at ASA:
 
Hi Robin
 
Thanks for your email.
 
Further to your queries, as background, it’s perhaps helpful if I outline the details of the case, including the specific claims that FoE formally assured us will not appear again:
 
We received a complaint about claims in a magazine insert by Friends of the Earth which promoted its anti-fracking campaign.
 
The complainant challenged whether the claim “Fracking involves pumping millions of litres of water containing a toxic cocktail of chemicals deep underground … Up to 80% never returns to the surface and could end up in your drinking water” was misleading and could be substantiated; and “A hospital near a US fracking site reports asthma rates three times higher than average” misleadingly implied that fracking caused such increases in asthma rates.
 
Separately, Cuadrilla challenged whether the following claims were misleading and could be substantiated:
 
· “25% of fracking chemicals could cause cancer. Also, more than 75% of fracking chemicals could affect your skin, eyes and respiratory system. Whilst 50% could affect your nervous, immune and cardiovascular systems”; and
 
· “Plummeting house prices”.
 
We approached Friends of the Earth with the concerns that had been raised about its ad. The advertiser agreed not to repeat the claims, or claims that had the same meaning.
 
On that basis we closed the case informally. The ad must not appear again in its current form. We have told Friends of the Earth Trust Ltd and Friends of the Earth Ltd not to make claims about the likely effects of fracking on the health of local populations, drinking water, or property prices in the absence of adequate evidence.
 
You’ve asked what “criticism of their evidence” led us to reach our conclusions. As I mentioned in my tweet to you yesterday, we operate a reverse burden of proof so it is for an advertiser to prove its claims rather than for us to disprove them. The fact is, when we approached Friends of the Earth with the concerns that had been raised about its advertising material it agreed not to repeat the claims.
 
If this case had resulted in a formal ruling then we would have published on our website our assessment, in full, of the evidence. But FoE agreed to resolve this case on an informal basis, i.e. without the need for us to formally rule on potentially problem ad claims. Because of that, I’m not in a position to share with you private correspondence between us and FoE during the course of our investigation, including our assessment of their evidence.
 
As an even-handed regulator, we don’t take sides. We’ve taken action before against the fracking industry for its own ad claims, when they haven’t stood up to scrutiny.
 
As an example:
 
https://www.asa.org.uk/Rulings/Adjudications/2013/4/Cuadrilla-Resources-Ltd/SHP_ADJ_203806.aspx#.WG-LsPCLS70
 
https://www.asa.org.uk/
 
In essence, this means that FoE withdrew the leaflet PRIOR to the position whereby ASA would have issued a formal ruling. The question then is, what would that formal ruling have entailed and would FoE have had the right to challenge it? If not, would it have involved some kind of sanctions? If so, was that a factor in FoE deciding to withdraw the leaflet?
 
It looks like we are now back in the position where FoE has some explaining to do on this matter.

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