When Dr. Mehmet Oz appeared as a guest on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show nine days ago to give his thoughts about the worsening humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, the celebrity doctor covered expected ground, discussing the plight of civilian victims of the war and the “dwindling” supplies of food, water and medicine in the country. But the conversation ended with Oz expressing his full support for fracking in Pennsylvania.
Oz spoke from a town hall meeting in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where he is campaigning as a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. Flanked by an American flag and the blue state flag of Pennsylvania, with a handful of supporters sitting behind him, their faces blurred out of focus, Oz talked about the grim reality of the war and the toll it’s taken on children in Ukraine.
At one point, Hannity asked Oz about the possibility of a covert NATO or American-led military operation to halt the Russian assault on Kyiv, and Oz veered away from the tactical aspects of the war and toward another topic entirely: natural gas extraction in Pennsylvania.
“I’m here in Pennsylvania where there’s natural gas under my feet that could address our domestic issues…and, more importantly, help our allies in Europe wean themselves off their dependence on Russian natural gas,” he said. “These folks are livid,” he said, of Pennsylvanians he has met on his campaign, who he says are angry about rising gasoline prices and what lower natural gas production means for national security.
“The state of Pennsylvania has been smart,” Hannity said. “They’ve been fracking.”
The recent “Hannity” appearance isn’t the only time that Oz has brought up energy independence and natural gas in an effort to boost his candidacy in a state that is second only to Texas when it comes to natural gas production in the U.S.
But Oz hasn’t always expressed such unreserved support for fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, the technique used to extract natural gas from Pennsaylvania’s Marcellus Shale and from shale in numerous other states.
In a syndicated newspaper column he began co-writing in 2007 with Dr. Mike Roizen, now the emeritus chief wellness officer at the Cleveland Clinic, the two physicians cited the environmental and health risks associated with fracking on several occasions and, in one column, warned expecting mothers who live near natural gas wells against drinking the water and counseled them to keep three kilometers away from fracking fields.
Now, Oz’s campaign website declares that he “will work to overturn” the “heavy-handed regulations that are hurting Pennsylvania jobs,” which he says are the result of an “attack” on the energy industry by the Biden administration. Oz reiterated his support for natural gas extraction, and for fracking specifically, on Newsmax just a few days ago. “Back off, Biden,” he told host Eric Bolling. “Give us the freedom we need to frack.”
On Hannity’s show, he also claimed that there are no pipelines “anywhere in this commonwealth” for shipping gas to other states, which isn’t true; pipelines in Pennsylvania connect to New Jersey, New York and other surrounding states.
Brittany Yanick, communications director for Oz’s campaign, said Oz has consistently supported fracking. “Dr. Oz has always supported hydraulic fracturing and a strong domestic energy industry, especially in Pennsylvania where we have clean, natural gas right under our feet that will guarantee high paying, skilled jobs and deliver energy security,” she said in a statement that described Oz’s plan for “America’s energy security.”
Fracking has long been seen as a critical issue in Pennsylvania politics, one that doesn’t necessarily cut cleanly along party lines. In the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden declined to endorse a fracking ban; he may have been reluctant to come out completely against fracking in part because of concerns about how it would affect voters in this crucial swing state.
Oz’s potential Democratic rivals in the Senate race, U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, both oppose a fracking ban. But like his Pennsylvania residency status, Oz’s unconditional pro-fracking stance seems to be relatively new.
Dr. Oz’s campaign website places his experience as a doctor front and center, using medical metaphors to explain the state of the country (“America’s heartbeat is in a code red”) and his approach to politics (“The Right Medicine”). He says that his career as a surgeon taught him the “emotional fortitude” necessary “to soothe the anxious looks of trusting relatives seeking safety for their loved ones.”
His time as a “health expert” on the Oprah Winfrey Show, he writes, gave him an ability to “communicate tough stuff to the public.”
“We need to bravely make accurate diagnoses,” he writes, “and take bold, sometimes unpopular, steps before we can heal.”
In 2007, in his previous life as a talk show host and celebrity doctor, Dr. Oz launched the syndicated newspaper column he co-authored with Roizen, which provided expert responses to people’s health questions, through King Features Syndicate.
In October 2014, Roizen and Oz responded to a reader who had a question about fracking and health. “I keep hearing that hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) is polluting our air and groundwater and causing serious health problems,” Richard F., of Dayton, Ohio wrote. “Is that true?”
“We wonder how eager the leaders of the natural gas industry would be to drink well water from a farm next to one of their drilling sites,” the doctors answered.
They went on to describe reported air and water pollution, “possibly” from fracking in Pennsylvania, which has caused symptoms in residents like breathing problems, headaches, nosebleeds and nausea, and they endorsed a policy in New York state that halted fracking until its health effects could be fully studied.
“Better safe than irreversibly sorry,” they wrote.
The article concluded with a nod to the oil and gas industry, which they said should “welcome” more testing and regulation. The doctors said they were for fracking, but only if it doesn’t “cause deadly disease and irreversibly pollute the air and water aquifers.”
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A 2015 response tackled a similar fracking question from a reader in Ohio in more definitive terms, pointing to the “long-term, far-reaching effects” that fracking has on the people living near extraction sites, and citing a University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University study of northwest Pennsylvania that showed a connection between living near fracking wells and higher rates of hospitalization.
The doctors quoted the Ohio Environmental Council, which called state regulations on fracking “woefully inadequate,” considering the environmental and health risks associated with the practice.
In another article, from September 2016, a reader named George F., of Williamsport, Pennsylvania, wrote in with a question about chronic sinus pain and a stuffy nose. “In your area of Pennsylvania, there’s extensive fracking going on,” the doctors responded, citing a Johns Hopkins study that found 24 percent of people with high levels of exposure to active fracking wells suffered from chronic rhinosinusitis, migraines and fatigue.
One article, from January 2018, detailed the results of a Pennsylvania study that focused on the risks that fracking wells pose to expecting mothers. The study analyzed 1.1 million Pennsylvania birth records from 2004 to 2013 and concluded that babies born to women living within three kilometers of a fracking site suffered higher rates of negative health effects, and infants born to mothers who lived within one kilometer of a fracking site were 25 percent more likely to have low birth weights. Low birth weight is linked to a higher risk of infant mortality and is used in public health as an indicator of maternal health, nutrition and poverty.
The article recommended that pregnant women living near fracking wells shouldn’t drink the water, should use air filters inside and should “try to keep more than 3 kilometers away from the fracking field.”
Staying away from fracking in some regions of Pennsylvania is easier said than done: in 2015, FracTracker estimated that almost 2 million Pennsylvanians lived within one kilometer of an active oil or gas well, and more fracking and drilling in the state would put an even larger number of families at risk.
In parsing the co-written column, Yanick, the Oz campaign’s communications director, said that Oz and Roisen “have very different positions on energy policy and fracking.”
Yanick said that Roizen took over “sole management” of the column in 2009, when Dr. Oz’s television show began. “When they disagreed on views, he was supposed to clearly specify he felt a different way than Dr. Oz,” she said.
Yanick also provided a signed letter from Dr. Roizen about his 20-year partnership with Oz and their work on the columns. “If we disagreed on an editorial direction, I would specify that ‘Dr. Roizen’ felt a certain way,” he wrote. “We have found several columns where this process was not followed.”
Many of the columns reviewed for this article were written in the voice of both doctors, speaking as “we”; none of the columns that dealt with fracking indicated a difference of opinion between the two authors.
Oz may not have managed the column after 2009, but his work on the column with Roizen was included in a profile that appeared in the New York Times in 2010, and Roizen’s professional biography continues to include mention of the column as a joint, co-written effort.
David Masur, the Executive Director of PennEnvironment, a Pennsylvania-focused environmental advocacy organization, sees Dr. Oz’s stance on fracking as part of the broader trend toward polarization in American politics, which pushes candidates to move toward more extreme viewpoints in order to appeal to voters in their party’s primary.
In Pennsylvania, attack ads are already attempting to brand Dr. Oz as a “R.I.N.O.” or “Republican in name only,” a liberal outsider with ties to Hollywood. “I think it’s more about a defensive posture,” Masur said, describing Oz’s recent outspoken support for fracking as a way to respond to Republican opponents’ criticism that he’s not conservative enough.
Whether Oz’s support for fracking will help or hurt him in the general election—or in his long-term political future in Pennsylvania—is a different question. As fracking has spread in Pennsylvania, its effects have spread too.
Masur points to the 2020 spill in Marsh Creek State Park, which resulted in the release of thousands of gallons of drilling mud into a lake, as one example of fracking’s growing negative effects on people living all over the state, including in the politically important Southeast. “That’s bigger than partisanship,” Masur said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a Democrat or Republican or an Independent, we love our public lands. We love our state parks.”
When fracking was first pitched to the people of Pennsylvania, Masur said, it was framed as offering a host of advantages—clean energy, energy independence, good jobs—with no downside. But it’s become clear in the years since, as outlined in Dr. Oz’s and Dr. Roizen’s columns, that the consequences of unchecked fracking are numerous, and Masur believes that knowledge of those consequences is fueling a shift in opinion in the state.
“They over-promised and under-delivered,” Masur said of fracking proponents. “The public is smart, they see that and go, ‘Oh, you’re a little bit of a snake oil salesman, and you tried to sell me a bill of goods that’s not real.’”
Kiley Bense is a writer and journalist whose work has previously been published in the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Believer, and elsewhere.