Oil and natural gas companies have gone beyond providing needed energy and the resources required to make life-saving medical equipment by donating time, money and supplies in their communities – even while facing unprecedented challenges brought on by COVID-19 and the state of the oil market. Meanwhile, “Keep It In the Ground” activists have repeatedly attempted to use the pandemic as a tool to attack the oil and natural gas industry.

Most recently, KIITG groups have been touting a yet-to-be peer-reviewed Harvard University article on small particulate matter (PM2.5) and COVID-19 – that has nothing to with oil and natural gas – as a new reason to oppose fracking. In fact, the server hosting the article even includes guidelines about these types of articles, which they call preprints – articles that have not been peer-reviewed and “may contain errors” – for journalists and others who may cite them. MedRxiv, the server hosting the article, explains:

“We also urge journalists and other individuals . . . to consider this when discussing work that appears on medRxiv preprints and emphasize it has yet to be evaluated by the medical community and the information presented may be erroneous.”

Not that such a disclaimer made its way into an ExxonKnews article portraying the study as settled science that supports efforts to stop everything from production to refining in Louisiana:

“Even before Harvard University published a study proving the link between high levels of lung damaging PM2.5 (a microscopic pollutant released during the combustion of fossil fuels) and increased fatalities from coronavirus, environmental justice reporter Yessenia Funes was on the case.” (emphasis added)

And while the National Resources Defense Council does mention that the study isn’t peer-reviewed yet, it still presents it as sound science against oil and natural gas development in California:

“[The research] demonstrates that long-term exposure to even slightly increased levels of fine particulate matter air pollution measuring less than 2.5 microns—or PM2.5—are associated with significantly higher COVID-19 death rates.” (emphasis added)

Study Already Receiving Criticism

Aside from the obvious challenge to research comparing how this coronavirus has impacted different cities because we’re still in the middle of the pandemic and don’t yet have reliable data on total cases or deaths – the Harvard study cuts off its data on April 4, prior to even New York City’s estimated COVID-19 peak – critics have also flagged some other issues.

For instance, the authors aggregate different sets of data—county-level PM2.5 levels and COVID-19 fatalities—without looking at individual considerations for those who succumbed to the disease. Epidemiologists Paul Villeneuve and Mark Goldberg address this issue:

“[Ecological] studies do not use data at an individual level. They are not highly regarded in epidemiology because they have many limitations that prevent them from providing insight on cause-and-effect relationships. This study is no different.”

Villeneuve and Goldberg further explained:

“In the study, each county was associated with one value of air pollution. But a county can be so different from another in terms of size and population, it makes little sense to do so.”

What’s more, in their consideration of long-term exposure to PM2.5, the authors also assume that individuals who succumb to COVID-19 resided in the same county over a span of more than a decade—an assumption that would not work if they were examining data on an individual level.

Environmental scientist and former National Research Council member Fred Lipfert also finds similar flaws with the article:

The new Harvard paper … is not a bona fide scientific investigation because it considers only one pollutant and ignores others regulated under the Clean Air Act. It used aggregate information on entire counties, not actual air pollution exposures by COVID-19 victims, or their smoking, medical comorbidities, demographics, or socioeconomic status. It inferred those characteristics, thus committing the ‘ecological fallacy’ (the whole cannot represent its parts). The long-term air pollution-mortality studies cited as support also suffers from this limitation; they lack information on personal exposures that are dominated by indoor sources such as passive smoking, cooking, cleaning, and pets. EPA has no mandate to regulate air quality indoors, where we typically spend 85 percent of our time and even more during hospitalization. Outdoor ambient air quality characterizes locations, not the personal exposures of inhabitants.” (emphasis added)

The COVID-19 pandemic is creating crises around the world, and as we learn more about what has occurred, sound and unbiased research is going to be crucial for both greater understanding and mitigation efforts. But using premature research to unfairly attack an industry that is still playing such a crucial role in our daily lives is irresponsible at best.