The oil lobby in the battleground state of Pennsylvania has found an unlikely, but powerful, friend in Dr. Mehmet Oz, celebrity doctor and host of the Dr. Oz Show and recent advisor on coronavirus to the Trump administration.
The Ivy League-educated TV-star-turned-Trump-admin-advisor has recently embraced fracking in his bid for senate in Pennsylvania, announced in November. Speaking at a candidate town hall in Hershey, Pennsylvania last week, Oz advocated for increasing production of natural gas to solve global supply chain issues and best serve the environment.
“If we were to use our natural gas right here, from under our feet, and use it to replace dirty coal from overseas manufacturers, it would be the equivalent of electrifying every U.S. car, plus putting a solar panel on every roof, plus doubling wind energy production — all together,” he said during the forum.
The move represents an about-face from Oz, who has in the past authored a number of columns urging Americans to be wary of the health risks of fracking.
“It’s a fact that hydraulic fracturing pumps a lot of toxic chemicals (we know of about 24 offhand) deep underground at high enough pressure to fracture shale and release trapped gas and oil,” Oz wrote in a column in the Herald-Tribune in 2014. “In Pennsylvania, there are multiple reports of air and water contamination, possibly from hydraulic fracturing sites, causing folks breathing problems, rashes, headaches, nosebleeds, numbness, nausea and vomiting.”
To date, a laundry list of peer-reviewed studies have affirmed links between living near oil drilling and increased rates of respiratory illness, skin conditions, stress, and low birth weight. However, a full scientific understanding of the apparent correlation remains hampered by trade secret laws that protect oil companies from disclosing exactly what goes into their drilling fluids, even to doctors.
“That’s why we suggest that everyone would be best served by the policy adopted in New York state,” Oz goes on to write in the 2014 column. “No fracking until results of a state department of health study become available.”
Oz’s flip-flop comes along with support from industry players like Continental Resources Inc., an Oklahoma-based oil producer whose Chair, Harold Hamm, recently joined his campaign trail alongside former Energy Secretary Rick Perry, both of whom are joining him on the campaign trail, E&E News reported.
In a battleground state like Pennsylvania, it might just work. Both Republicans and Democrats are bidding for a Senate majority in 2022; as the New York Times reported in November, many of Oz’s campaign plays, including criticisms of pandemic lockdowns, appeal to a conservative voter base in the state that could help him secure the senate’s fate if successful. Announcing his support for an industry that’s long made promises of job security and economic prosperity could actually work. Even if those promises haven’t exactly panned out, many residents still remain devoted to the industry.
Though Pennsylvania’s roots as the birthplace of oil and gas run deep in some places, around half of voters said they opposed shale drilling in a January, 2020 survey by Franklin and Marshall University. That survey made headlines immediately before President Joe Biden’s election, and his decision not to commit to a fracking ban remained contentious.
Oz could have both the star power and the political messaging to win over the state with Trump-like effect—turning the Senate red and setting back Biden’s climate agenda completely—or it could simply be laughed off by voters, a political consultant who spoke to Motherboard on background said. The former eventuality is a concern for Molly Parzen, interim executive director of the Pennsylvania League of Conservation Voters.
“President Biden needs partners in Congress who are willing to invest in solutions that build a 21stcentury clean energy economy that looks to the future – not to the past,” she told Motherboard by email. “We need elected officials in Washington who are willing to take bold action to embrace a bright future for Pennsylvania workers built on a green energy economy rather than doubling down on dirty fossil fuels.”
Oz’s embrace of oil could also prove especially effective in the face of what E&E News called “allegations of “carpetbagging,” or seeking election in an area with no known connections, that Oz has faced from Pennsylvanians. Though the Turkish-American doctor spent most of his medical career in New York, at Columbia University, he did attend the University of Pennsylvania for both medical school and for a Masters in Business Administration — so that’s a connection, I guess. Today, he says he resides in Pennsylvania, and where his campaign address is listed but, per the Philadelphia Inquirer, is often seen on social media hanging out by his New Jersey mansion.
Oz’s stance seems to go beyond support of the oil industry and toward climate science denial—he told the Hershey, PA forum that the “ideology that carbon is bad” is “a lie,” and one that’s needlessly hurt the gas industry.
“Carbon dioxide, my friends, 0.04 percent of our air,” he said. “That’s not the problem.”
In a TikTok he posted last month, Oz can be seen at what looks like a gas pump, vocalizing his support for natural gas, which he says building out will create high-paying jobs for Pennsylvanians, before claiming it has “decarbonized our country faster than any major country.”
Natural gas emits less by way of carbon dioxide than coal or oil, but it is still a significant source of emissions. But then again, it’s far from the first time that Oz has said an untrue thing. As a celebrity doctor, his advice frequently teetered between scientifically legitimate and totally baseless.
One 2014 study randomly sampled 80 recommendations from 40 Dr. Oz episodes and found that just around half of them were supported by peer-reviewed evidence, with the rest revolving around peddling alternative medicine and so-called fat busters that did not work. He’s openly supported vaccines, but said in the past that his own children would not be vaccinated against H1N1 and blamed his wife. Most recently, as medical advisor on former President Donald Trump’s Council on Sports, Fitness, and Nutrition, he advocated for the use of hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 treatment, contradicting the official line by the National Institutes of Health that also cautions its side effects, including cardiac complications.
"Much of the advice Oz offers is sensible, and is rooted solidly in scientific literature," Michael Specter wrote in a 2013 profile in The New Yorker. "That is why the rest of what he does is so hard to understand."
“I can’t figure this out,” former Senator Claire McCaskill (D - MO) told Oz during a 2014 hearing on health misinformation documented by The Atlantic. “I get that you do a lot of good on your show. I understand that you give a lot of great information about health in a way that’s easily understandable. You’re very talented, you’re obviously very bright, and you’ve been trained in science-based medicine."
“Now, here are three statements you made on your show,” she said, before going on to read him a handful of lines containing misleading medical claims.
“I don't know why you need to say this stuff,” she said. “Because you know it's not true.” Oz replied, “If I could disagree about whether they work or not, and move on to the issue of the words that I used.”
Today, Oz’s willingness to embrace claims with little in the way of scientific backing could derail the country’s ability to transition to renewables.