NC Senate appoints industry front group member to Oil and Gas Commission slot reserved for conservation voice

NC Senate appoints industry front group member to Oil and Gas Commission slot reserved for conservation voice

- in Environment, Top Story

Jim Womack has a reputation in North Carolina for being many things, but a conservationist isn’t one of them.

An outspoken fracking proponent, of course. A blogger who, under the pseudonym James Madison, likened President Obama to a Marxist Muslim imam, sure. A Tea Party supporter and Lee County Commissioner who voted to dismantle the environmental board — yes, that happened.

It was because of this background that many environmental advocates and political observers were puzzled earlier this month when Senator Phil Berger reappointed Womack to the state’s oil and gas commission to fill a seat reserved for a “nongovernmental conservation interest.”

Womack’s purported conservation bona fides stem from his membership on the board of science and policy advisors of the American Council on Science and Health. However, a review of the group’s position papers, books and the backgrounds of all 300 advisors shows that ACSH performs no conservation activities.

Hank Campbell, president of ACSH, acknowledged to Policy Watch that the group “hasn’t produced any books on energy or environmental policy in the last few years that have a conservation aspect. We’ve been tackling salt, artificial colors, etc.”

In reality, ACSH is a front group for industry whose focus is on “debunking” bad science about nutrition, health, pharmaceuticals and agribusiness. As part of it “pro-science” mission, ACSH or its board members have declared as safe — or at least omitted the detrimental health effects of — several products known to be harmful:

Like Womack, ACSH is a vocal cheerleader for fracking. It has published pro-fracking articles, and “peer-reviewed” papers claiming the practice benefits the environment. (“Peer-reviewed” in the case, means articles reviewed in the echo chamber of the ACSH board, not peer-reviewed scientific journals.)

Several advisory board members are affiliated with the Heartland Institute, whose publications deny the reality of climate change and promote fossil fuels, much like some of its major funders, which include foundations controlled by the Koch Brothers.

As a man who supports fracking, Jim Womack is right at home.

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Womack was nominated to sit on the ACSH board in 2013 by the group’s founder and former president Elizabeth Whelan, who died the following year. Hank Campbell, her successor, told Policy Watch that based on her notes, Whelan asked Womack to join the advisory board because he was “instrumental due to his position at the time, in helping find research for a book we were doing about any possible health or environmental effects of natural gas.”

In 2013, Womack sat on North Carolina’s Mining and Energy Commission, and as it related to fracking, its Trade Secrets and Compulsory Polling groups. He was in his heyday then, believing that soon Lee and Chatham counties would be the new frontier for natural gas.

The book that Whelan needed Womack’s advice on, “Hydraulic Fracturing in the Marcellus Shale: Water and Health, Facts vs. Fiction” was published by the ACSH in May 2014. It was followed by a “consumer-friendly” brochure “What’s the Story? Fracking: Facts Vs. Fiction.”

The benefits of fracking are economic, and — paradoxically — environmental,” wrote Dr. Theodore Them, an occupational medicine specialist in Sayre, Pennsylvania, the heart of that state’s fracking country.

In a section about health, Them concludes: “If one looks beyond the hype and scare tactics, there is no credible evidence that there has been adverse impact of fracking on human health. … It would be quite unfortunate to let unfounded health scares propagated by anti-fracking groups derail this important advance toward energy independence in the United States.”

This stance, which is contradicted by the EPA and other independent scientists who have since concluded that hydraulic fracturing has contaminated groundwater and drinking water with fluids used in the practice, is predictable, considering that Isaac Orr, a research fellow with the Heartland Institute, was among four “peer reviewers” for the fracking book. Eight more ACSH board members have ties to the Heartland Institute, including Jay Lehr, its science director; Fred Singer, director of the institute’s science and environmental policy project; and Stanley Young, who works in Research Triangle Park at the National Institute of Statistical Science.

Senator Phil Berger did not return a request for comment on Womack’s appointment.

And Womack himself refused to discuss his role on the board with Policy Watch. Asked about his service and ACSH board policies, Womack replied: “Frankly, I have much better things to do than be researching those kinds of things. Since your questions do not pertain to the business of the Oil & Gas Commission, it would be unproductive of me to further research or respond to your questions.”

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According to the ACSH website the 300-member board of science and policy advisors is a combination of university professors — both current and retired — nutritionists, medical doctors of varying reputations, consultants, attorneys, and scientists in many fields such as plant botany, animal science and entomology.

(Note that the list does not appear to have been updated in at least two years. Sixteen board members on the roster are dead.)

Based on publicly available documents, the backgrounds of many living board members, who serve for free, are benign. However, several of Womack’s board colleagues have criminal histories. Gilbert Ross, served prison time and had his medical license revoked for participating in a Medicaid fraud scheme, according to Mother Jones.

Shayne Gad, one of 11 board members from North Carolina, was convicted of a misdemeanor in federal court for falsely claiming that he had been awarded the Navy Cross, the Silver Star and three Purple Hearts. Gad, who lives in Cary, served eight months’ probation in 2009, according to the Orange County, California Register.

Gad, a toxicologist who runs his own consulting firm, did not respond to an email about his role on the board.

Policy Watch was able to reach three of North Carolina’s board members about their work with ACSH. But there is not much work to do.

Kathryn Kolasa is a professor emeritus in the Department of Family Medicine at Eastern Carolina University. She was unaware that she still appeared on the roster. “I don’t think I have reviewed anything in several years,” said Kolasa, who has a doctorate in food science.

Nutrition scientist Stephen Zeisel studies obesity at UNC Chapel Hill. He said he was invited to be on the board because of his work in the field. “Once in a few years” ACSH will ask him to review a paper, he said, but there are no other duties.

Stephen Barrett, a retired psychiatrist living in Pittsboro, joined the board in 1978. He said he has no duties, other than being available to “answer questions or help with projects related to my areas of expertise: Health Fraud and Quackery.”

ACSH is keen on debunking scientific myths and fads, particularly nutritional ones, albeit in the service to its corporate donors or, at times, in ignoring its own board members’ practices.

For example, board member Dr. Robert Bard, director of the Bard Cancer Center, specializes in the treatment of prostate cancer. Under “Prevention” on his center’s website, Bard sells supplements, which he notes have not been approved by the FDA, but nonetheless carry the authority of a doctor’s advice: a proprietary blend labeled PMCaox, Co-enzyme Q10, and Pro-Rose Plus, whose key ingredient is Organic Damask Rose Petals, “used in ancient Egypt healing.”

Food scientist and board member Lazlo Somogyi sells “Bread of Life Vitamins” that will supposedly boost your energy, detox your liver, treat your arthritis and enhance your mind. And board member Michael Zemel of the University of Tennessee extolled the virtues of milk as a weight-loss strategy. Until the Federal Trade Commission stepped in, the dairy industry used that false claim in a marketing campaign.

On its federal tax returns, the nonprofit group doesn’t disclose its donors, but in 2013, Mother Jones published a story about its finances. ACSH’s backers have included Dow, Monsanto, American Cyanamid, the Mobil Foundation, Nestle, Chevron, Coca-Cola, Bayer Cropscience, Syngenta, and tobacco conglomerate Altria.

That could explain why ACSH touts smokeless tobacco as a safer alternative to smoking. Or why Coca-Cola cites the organization in defending its use of BPA in the coatings of aluminum cans. Or why a California concrete industry group cc’d board member Kathryn Kelly on a letter to state regulators claiming they needed to raise the acceptable level of hexavalent chromium in drinking water.

Money could also explain ACSH’s support for fracking — and its courting of Jim Womack. The documents leaked to Mother Jones showed that ACSH had received a $37,500 donation in 2012 from the American Petroleum Institute related to fracking, plus other funds from Chevron and ExxonMobil.

None of this sounds like conservation. But ACSH’s Hank Campbell stretches the definition — and the imagination. “I have been so fascinated by attempts to polarize ‘conservation’ to meaning only banning things,” Campbell said. He further claimed that throughout its 39-year history, the American Council on Science and Health “has promoted responsible stewardship of the environment.”

A native of rural Pennsylvania, Campbell said he grew up on a subsistence farm, on which the family heated their home with wood, hunted for meat and canned vegetables. That upbringing, he said, qualifies him as a conservationist: “I am confident I am more of a real conservationist than 99 percent of Sierra Club employees.”

As for Womack, Campbell defended his environmental credentials, describing him as “a long-time advocate for conservation and responsible energy management.”

Noting that the his group “welcomes dissent,” Campbell said that “if energy policy should become controversial again, I am confident [Womack] will be a valuable voice, no matter what our finding is.”