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Spotting Pseudoscience

Hydraulic Fracturing: Accurately Representing Science-in-the-Making

by Benjamin A. Janney, Michael P. Clough, and Benjamin C. Herman

This story highlights two tactics of science misinformation and disinformation efforts: the lack of necessary science expertise and cherry picking. See Features of Science Misinformation/Disinformation Efforts: Understand how to detect false information for more information regarding these tactics.

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In 2008 on a small ranch in the heart of Texas fracking country a family began experiencing serious health issues. At first Lisa Parr attributed her symptoms to the seasonal flu but, after several weeks, her nausea and migraines were growing more severe. In an interview with CNN the following year, Lisa recounted that “My central nervous system was messed up. I couldn’t hear, and my vision was messed up. My entire body would shake inside. I was vomiting white foam in the mornings.” [1]. Later that year, Lisa’s husband Robert and their daughter Emma, began experiencing similar symptoms.

By 2011 the symptoms had become so severe that the family filed a lawsuit against Aruba Petroleum Inc. alleging that the company created a “private nuisance” by producing harmful air pollution and exposing them to toxic emissions from their nearby natural gas wells. Aruba owned 22 of the more than 100 such wells that existed within the two-mile radius of the Parr ranch, with the closest located just 791 feet from the family’s home [2]. The initial decision against Aruba was overturned in 2017 with the court stating that none of the evidence cited by the Parrs demonstrated that Aruba intended to interfere with the Parr’s land. Since the ruling Aruba has shut down the nearest well to the Parr home and placed new monitors on several surrounding wells. “It is going to make it harder [to challenge the industry],” Lisa Parr said of the appellate court’s ruling, “In Texas, it is impossible to fight the industry.” [3].

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A hydraulic fracturing well lies just yards from a residential home in rural Pennsylvania. image source

History of Hydraulic Fracturing

Patents for oil and gas ground fracturing date back to as early as 1862 to Union soldier Edward A.L. Roberts. During the Battle of Fredericksburg, Roberts observed impact tremors on the water of a nearby canal made by exploding torpedoes. Roberts realized these fissures could be replicated underground, thereby splitting the solid layers and freeing the trapped oil and gas [4]. The decades following the invention of Roberts’ technique led to an unprecedented explosion in manufacturing and urbanization causing people across the world to seek new ways to harvest and utilize the energy stored in coal and oil.

 

By the early 1940s, fracking was solely executed through underground explosives such as dynamite. This method was particularly dangerous and wasteful as it allowed for a great deal of natural gas to be lost in the aftermath of the explosion. In 1949, a new means of ground fracturing was successfully applied in the small town of Duncan, Oklahoma. Halliburton Oil Well Cementing company patented it's novel “hydrofrac” process. A novel method of fracture-extraction, hydrofracking applied a water-based compound fluid that could be forcefully injected into drilled out deep holes. The ‘frac fluid’ then splits an exponentially greater number of cracks and releases a far greater amount of trapped oil and gas. Energy experts estimate that hydro-fracturing advanced U.S. recoverable reserves of oil and gas by 30% and 90% respectively [5].

In the decades following Halliburton’s advances, globalization and exponential population growth produced an ever-increasing demand for inexpensive energy. International crises such as the oil shortage of 1979 further pressured the United States to invest in domestic extraction instead of relying on importing oil from the Middle East and Russia. At the same time other environmental issues including the atmospheric pollution by chlorofluorocarbons and the growing scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change placed opposing pressure on the United States to increase air, water, and land protections including examining greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

In 1990, amidst increasing coal and oil extraction and burning concerns, the Mitchell Energy company uncovered a massive, untapped energy source buried deep under the United States. Mitchell Energy had perfected a new means of hydraulic fracturing that used a horizontal drill and sand mixed into the frac fluid (Figure 2). Horizontal drilling allowed Mitchell Energy to crack into the great shale bed of the Barnett Shale formation in West Texas. These massive rock beds which spread across Texas, and other locations such as Pennsylvania, Colorado, and the Dakotas, hold immense amounts of natural gas locked within the previously impenetrable rock. The EPA estimates that the gas stored in the Barnett and other shale beds hold enough natural gas to power the U.S. for the next 50 years [7].

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An overview of the modern hydraulic fracturing process. 

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However, hydraulic fracturing and natural gas have not become the energy solution many anticipated. While natural gas burns much cleaner than coal or oil, results in less carbon dioxide emissions, and is abundant across the U.S., environmental and health consequences do exist. Hydraulic fracking has therefore provided another point of conflict between energy companies and environmental groups that forces people to weigh potential hazards to the health of citizens and the environment against the economic profits and security derived from resource extraction.

Nature of science connections

Science seeks to understand the natural world, but the knowledge it produces impacts society, and societal forces impact science. Biases resulting from that interaction can and are mitigated, but often cannot be eliminated. This is particularly the case when knowledge about nature has technological applications. In the case of fracking, the tension existing between economic, political, and environmental goals impacts the funding of science. Funding decisions impact what studies are conducted, and financial pressures have potential to impact what findings are put forward. As you read this story, notice the tensions that arise between competing interests and scientific findings.

Question 1

How does the scientific community mitigate bias that can interfere with the pursuit of objective knowledge about the natural world?

Hydraulic Fracturing's Debut in the Court of Public Opinion

The 2009 film GasLand debuted as an investigative documentary into the ethical practices of the rapidly growing shale gas industry. The film opens as a gas company offers director and investigator Josh Fox $100,000 for the drilling and mineral rights to his property. The astonishing offer leads Fox to explore the industry’s practices. The documentary ultimately acts as a full-fledged attack on shale gas, highlighting iconic shots of ‘flaming tap water’ coming from a family’s faucet and targeted interviews with families living near shale gas drill sites who are experiencing health problems such as lung inflammation, nausea, and respiratory ailments.

In GasLand, Fox claims to expose shale gas drill sites as hazardous, unregulated exploitation of rural land and citizens. Perhaps most concerning is the assertation that the oil and gas industry has covered up damages with the assistance of state and federal officials [8]. The film was so scathing that executives from several oil and gas companies launched an independent investigation and refutation of the film’s core claims before the film even debuted on HBO television. The Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) through their initiative Energy in Depth, published a critique of the film, criticizing the mischaracterization of hydraulic fracturing and the omission of key facts that contradict many of the film’s claims. Further, the IPAA sent a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences calling for GasLand to have its Best Documentary Oscar nomination retracted on the grounds that the film was more fiction than fact — a view which John Fox then sought to rebut with his own public statements.

The debate between Fox and the energy industry presented a real challenge for ordinary citizens. Both sides claimed the support of the scientific community and offered evidence for the criticisms and support of hydraulic fracturing. Gasland was not the first major critique of hydraulic fracturing but the film’s visual evidence and availability to the general public introduced valid questions about the health safety and environmental consequences of hydraulic fracking that the scientific community deems critically important to address in the coming decade [9].

Question 2

Policymakers and the public cannot be expected to have the expertise to judge the scientific research for themselves. How does understanding the characteristics of science misinformation and disinformation efforts assist in knowing what community of experts to trust?

Hydraulic Fracking's Risk to Human Health

Gasland and other mainstream critiques of hydraulic fracking call for extensive investigations into the risks posed to human health and safety. Anecdotes such as the Parr family’s experiences are not uncommon but supporters of hydraulic fracturing, especially the oil and gas industry, contest many of the human health risks. The oil and gas industry and supporting organizations such as the IPAA have a clear interest in combatting scientific efforts to understand the health and environmental impacts of fracking.

 

Since the rise of fracking as a means of energy production in the United States, scientists have conducted robust investigations into the risks posed by the fracking process. Several scholarly reviews examining high-quality scientific research reported major connections between fracking and harmful health impacts. In a comprehensive review, Deziel [10] identified 25 of 29 studies that reported at least one statistically significant association between fracking and birth outcomes including preterm delivery and low birth weight. Independent studies identified an association between these adverse birth outcomes and proximity to oil and gas developments [11] [12]. Hays and Shonkoff [13] led a meta-analysis of the scientific literature on oil and gas production and human health and found that 84% of published studies indicated a direct public health risk connected to oil and gas development [13]. Other researchers have identified modest scientific findings that support a causal, but limited, relationship between living near fracking operations and several self-reported ailments including exacerbations of asthma, fatigue, chronic migraines, and long-term risk of cancer and neurodegenerative disease [9] [14].

 

Beyond associations between negative health effects and living near hydraulic fracking wells, scientific research has investigated the mechanisms by which fracking can adversely affect people. Concerns have been raised about habitat degradation and the contamination of air from emissions, but major attention has been directed at the potential for groundwater contamination and its impacts on local drinking water [15]. Frac fluid can contain hundreds of different chemical compounds including 48 of which are known human carcinogens [16]. The contamination of groundwater by fracking fluid wastewater is considered to be the most relevant health and environmental risk tied to fracking [17]. Accidental flow-back of contaminated water, leaking of storage wells, and leeching of methane gas can enter the surrounding groundwater. Leaks and accidental spills are uncommon but pose additional contamination risks. The EPA reports that the most probable reason for drinking water contamination is inadequate installation and monitoring of the cement lining of the drilling holes and storage tanks [18].

 

Natural gas entering public drinking water due to fracking is another issue raised by Gasland. The movie showed homeowners placing matches near their running water which caused large fireballs to erupt due to the concentrations of dissolved methane gas in the water. Studies have shown that methane concentrations in drinking water sharply increase with proximity to hydraulic fracking wells [19]. Flammable levels of natural gas are common in the water near fracking sites [20] However, no peer-reviewed studies have yet investigated the health effects of chronic ingestion of small amounts of methane [21].

 

Hydraulic fracking releases methane gas and volatile organic compounds into the air, and these can have negative health impacts. Of the 29 potential air contaminants linked to fracking that have carcinogenicity information available, 20 are known to cause cancer in humans [22]. McKenzie et al. [23], found that residents living within half a mile from wells were at a greater cumulative cancer risk than residents who lived farther away. Other researchers have found associations between the prevalence of health conditions including skin and respiratory irritations in individuals who live closer to natural gas extraction sites than individuals who lived farther away [24].

 

Hydraulic fracking is a broad and complex issue. Across the body of scientific literature, researchers are reporting meaningful connections between living near fracking wells and exposure to harmful chemicals. However, since hydraulic fracking development and operations are relatively recent, a few scientists maintain that directly attributing fracking to adverse effects requires more research [25] to address the uncertainties regarding the safety of hydraulic fracturing [26]  [27].  The American Chemical Society’s position statement on hydraulic fracking calls for independent research on the environmental impacts of the practice, and science-based policies to promote both human health and oil and gas development [28].

 

Hydraulic Fracking’s Risk to Local and Global Environments

Shale gas development is relatively new, and measurable environmental impacts can take decades to cause harmful consequences [29]. Studies have investigated the impact that hydraulic fracking may have on groundwater, surface water, aquatic ecosystems, and the atmosphere. Circumstances where fracking can impact drinking water resources include spills of toxic frac fluid chemicals, injection of frac fluids into drill wells that are low in mechanical integrity, injection of frac fluids directly into groundwater resources, and inadequate handling and disposal of wastewater and chemicals [30].

 

Geological and environmental scientists have published research that demonstrates significant impacts on both ground and surface water. For instance, Entrekin et. al. [31] describes several risks to water from natural gas extraction including chemical and sediment contamination of drinking water reservoirs, alterations to the flow of streams, and harmful pollution to aquatic ecosystems. Burton et. al. [32] reported significant concerns with natural gas operations including increased erosion, risks to aquatic ecosystems from chemical runoff, habitat fragmentation, loss of stream riparian zones, and the reduction of available surface water both for ecosystem and human use. Deforestation and vegetation loss are a concern among several scientists. Vegetation, especially along stream and riverbanks, provides a barrier to sediment loss, runoff pollution, and erosion. Without strong regulation and monitoring, some scientists worry that disturbances could lead to significant habitat loss and waterway pollution [33] [34]. Many species of salamander fish, mussels, birds, and flowering plants are also highly susceptible to changes in water contaminants as a result of nearby fracking [35].

 

Across the scientific literature, consensus exists that fracking poses major risks to three aspects of water resources: toxin contamination, methane leaking, and over withdrawal of freshwater resources. Water consumption by the drilling and fracking processes is a major concern. Typical fracking wells need about 2-20 million gallons of water depending on the depth and underlying rock formation [36]. This is relatively low compared to other fossil fuel extractions, but the density of wells combined with the exponential growth in hydraulic fracturing poses a major risk to freshwater sources at a local level [37].

 

Natural gas extraction from drilling and fracking can leak methane into the atmosphere, and methane is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in Earth’s atmosphere [38] [30]. To reduce the amount of methane entering the atmosphere, a technique called flaring is used that burns the escaping gas. Flaring produces CO2, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and other compounds, but this is an overall safer process than permitting methane to escape. Ultimately, despite being a cleaner energy source compared to other fossil fuels such as coal and oil, increased natural gas extraction will seriously exacerbate anthropogenic climate change [39].

 

A final environmental concern is the potential risk of fracking to stimulate seismic activity and trigger earthquakes. In 2009, responding to a significant uptick in reported seismic activity, scientists began investigating whether a connection exists between underground fracturing, wastewater injections, and induced earthquakes. The United States Geological Survey [40] concluded that only 2% of reported earthquakes in Oklahoma could be attributed directly to the fracking process. Instead, the surge in seismic activity was induced by the increase in wastewater disposal. This separate process happens in both oil and natural gas production. The wastewater from the production process is injected deep underground, far below groundwater aquifers. This storage process, while part of the overall oil and gas extraction process, is primarily executed in oil extraction, not fracking [40].

 

More recent research into fracking’s effects on seismic activity has yielded potential correlations between well sites and induced earthquakes. In a presentation to the Seismological Society of America, Rebecca Salvage from the University of Calgary discussed her recent research on seismic activity near hydraulic fracturing operations in British Columbia. She found that of the hundreds of small earthquakes occurring since 2019, 65% of them could not be attributed to natural seismicity or fluid injections. Interestingly, her study occurred during the two years since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down fracking operations in 2019. Thus, she and her colleagues suspect that fracking is causing long-term, lasting changes to the seismic activity in the area surrounding the fracking sites [41]. Other researchers are examining increases in small earthquakes in regions where fracking operations have grown such as Ohio and Texas. The research linking fracking to induced earthquakes is science “in-the-making”, but many scientists now suspect fracking contributes significantly to induced earthquakes and research substantiates this link is in progress [42] [43] [44].

 

The scientific community is confident that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas poses environmental risks. Water contamination can harm the health of humans and other organisms as well as damage nearby ecosystems. Fracking also significantly alters the atmosphere and air quality. Airborne particle pollution is reducing the air quality of residents living near fracking wells. Anthropogenic climate change is exacerbated by the large amount of methane released from fracking which in turn results in destructive implications for people and ecosystems all over the world. Reliable science organizations such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the American Chemical Society call for rigorous research and policy to mitigate the potentially devastating effects of hydraulic fracturing.

 

Resistance from the Oil and Gas Industry

Despite the emerging scientific consensus regarding the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, the oil and gas industry has exerted significant resistance to regulations and restrictions on fracking operations. Their efforts include incomplete or inaccurate representations of studies to give the appearance of supporting the energy industry’s position. For instance, one prominent organization, the Western Energy Alliance (WEA), states that “the EPA has concluded that hydraulic fracturing has not led to widespread systemic impacts on drinking water” [45]. However, the EPA’s Final Report [18] on hydraulic fracturing and drinking water, states that fracking can:

 

Impact drinking water resources under some circumstances. Impacts can range in frequency and severity, depending on the combination of hydraulic fracturing water cycle activities and local- or regional-scale factors. (p. ES-3).

The WEA maintains that the EPA, due to data gaps and uncertainties, is limited in its ability to fully assess the potential impacts on drinking water resources. Data gaps and uncertainty are a normal part of the scientific process of building a well-rounded understanding of phenomena. Western Energy Alliance is foregrounding uncertainty to cast doubt about the emerging scientific consensus regarding the risk fracking poses to drinking water. The Heritage Foundation, a pro-fossil fuel conservative think tank, publishes misinformation frequently regarding fracking and U.S. energy interests. For instance, in an article titled Fracking Could Save the Planet, author Stephen Moore argues that the advantages of natural gas include jobs and other economic benefits for the U.S. He attacks the “Greens,” who are unhinged objectors of clean, environmentally friendly fracking. Notably, Moore never addresses human health or pollution concerns in his defense of fracking [46]. His argument rests on the economic gains from fracking. That is no surprise given Moore’s qualifications. His title is a distinguished fellow in economics. His expertise lies in economics, not in scientific understandings of fracking. By speaking about fracking “saving the planet” Stephen Moore has skirted the scientific consensus on the health and environmental hazards posed by fracking and its wastewater.

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Red Flag  |  Lack of necessary science expertise

Lacking competence is a common feature of mis/disinformation efforts. In the case of resistance to fracking science, many online resources are published by authors lacking the relevant scientific expertise. Stephen Moore’s education is in economics, and this may permit him to provide credible opinion on the economics of fracking. But having no scientific background, he lacks the specific expertise to on scientific matters regarding hydraulic fracking.

However, the Independent Petroleum Association of America [47] claims that “there is ample evidence that increased natural gas use—made possible by fracking—has improved public health by dramatically improving air quality in recent years.” Their Energy in Depth outreach project also claims that fracking is not a threat to groundwater. To substantiate this latter claim, the IPAA provides references to 29 studies. Of those, 11 links to studies are broken and nine were portrayed in a misleading way. While most of the referenced literature accurately describes how fracking is not a direct threat to groundwater resources, many articles overtly state the potential dangers posed by improper handling of fracking waste and spills. For example, the IPAA cites an article by Duke University and the U.S. Geological Survey claiming that fracking poses no risk to drinking water. However, explicit acknowledgement of risk is noted in the statement that “Gas-well drilling and completion activities in the Fayetteville Shale have the potential to affect water quality in shallow aquifers. Potential sources of contamination include fluids associated with the drilling operation and spent water from the fracturing process” [48]. Energy in Depth cites a 2016 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency study stating that “Hydraulic fracturing operations are unlikely to generate sufficient pressure to drive fluids into shallow drinking water zones”, but ignores the same report’s conclusion that “This report describes how activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle can impact—and have impacted—drinking water resources and the factors that influence the frequency and severity of those impacts (p. ES-46), and “the vulnerability of groundwater resources to activities in the hydraulic fracturing water cycle (p. ES-47). Ultimately, the EPA urges significant attention be given to the processes and products of hydraulic fracturing in order to ensure that drinking water remains safe and uncontaminated. In summary, the IPAA appears to be selectively reporting studies and statements that mischaracterizations the emerging scientific consensus on fracking and human health.

Question 3

How is possessing required relevant science expertise different than merely having advanced science degrees?

Accurately Informed Decision-Making

The IPAA portrays fracking as an American success story that produces immense benefits including energy independence, making the U.S. an energy superpower, greater economic prosperity, and reduced cost of living [47]. Claims regarding the economic and geopolitical advantages of hydraulic fracturing are not issues that science research can directly address.  Appropriately weighing the advantages and disadvantages of hydraulic fracking, as with all socio-scientific issues, requires accurate information, including the scientific community’s assessment of the risks to human health and the environment [49].

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Red Flag  |  Cherry Picking

The studies cited in the IPAA document support the industry’s position that hydraulic fracking is of little if any concern for human safety and health. Upon closer inspection, however, the cited studies appear to reflect cherry-picking as well as misrepresentation of particular studies. Of the 106 citations provided in the compendium, roughly 10 of them represent scientific publications made in scientific journals. This blatant misrepresentation of the body of research on fracking is a clear warning sign of pseudoscience.

The scientific consensus on hydraulic fracking is one of caution. Fracking must be weighed along with health and environmental standards, including an evaluation of a well’s proximity to communities and adequate disposal of wastewater. The scientific community acknowledges the role natural gas from fracking can play in the reduction of coal and oil consumption. Ultimately, natural gas has an advantage over those fossil fuels because it burns cleaner and can still meet growing energy demands. But this science claim must itself be weighed against a broader overwhelmingly supported science claim. Dr. Susan Brantley and Dr. Anna Meyendorff, professors of geoscience policy, warn that “If fracked gas merely displaces efforts to develop cleaner, non-carbon, energy sources without decreasing reliance on coal, the doom and gloom of more rapid global climate change will be realized” [50].

 

Addressing increased energy demand while simultaneously reducing harmful impacts to air, water, and land will be a prominent issue for the foreseeable future. Fracking is a multifaceted and complex issue, and studies investigating its impacts are ongoing. Citizens and policymakers must weigh the economic and geopolitical advantages with the health and environmental risks when deciding how to proceed. Sound policy demands an accurate assessment of where the scientific community stands on the science related to fracking, and that requires understanding the characteristics of science mis/disinformation.

Question 4

List an example from this story illustrating cherry-picking and an example illustrating lack of necessary science expertise. How does this assist in assessing science information about hydraulic fracking?

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References

[1] Morris, J. (2014). Texas family plagued with ailments gets $3M in fracking judgment. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2014/04/25/justice/texas-family-wins-fracking-lawsuit/

[2] Hasemyer, D. (2014). Damage award in Texas fracking case raises stakes in air quality debate. Inside Climate News. https://insideclimatenews.org/news/28052014/damage-award-texas-fracking-case-raises-stakes-air-quality-debate/

[3] Baker, M. (2017). Wise County family won’t appeal loss of $2.9 million judgment against driller Read more at: https://www.star-telegram.com/news/business/article131769899.html#storylink=cpy. Fort Worth Star-Telegram. https://www.star-telegram.com/news/business/article131769899.html

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[20] Mall, A. (2011). Incidents where hydraulic fracturing is a suspected cause of drinking water contamination. NRDC. https://www.nrdc.org/experts/amy-mall/incidents-where-hydraulic-fracturing-suspected-cause-drinking-water-contamination

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[22] Wollin, K.-M., Damm, G., Foth, H., Freyberger, A., Gebel, T., Mangerich, A., Gundert-Remy, U., Partosch, F., Röhl, C., Schupp, T., & Hengstler, J. G. (2020). Critical evaluation of human health risks due to hydraulic fracturing in natural gas and petroleum production. Archives of Toxicology, 94(4), 967–1016. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00204-020-02758-7

[23] McKenzie, L. M., Witter, R. Z., Newman, L. S., & Adgate, J. L. (2012). Human health risk assessment of air emissions from development of unconventional natural gas resources. The Science of the Total Environment, 424, 79–87. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2012.02.018

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[27] Niehs. (2018). Hydraulic fracturing & health. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. https://www.niehs.nih.gov/health/topics/agents/fracking/index.cfm

[28] American Chemical Society. (2021). The science and technology of hydraulic fracturing. https://www.acs.org/content/dam/acsorg/policy/publicpolicies/sustainability/fracking/fracking-statement.pdf

[29] Howarth, R. W., Ingraffea, A., & Engelder, T. (2011a). Should fracking stop? Nature, 477(7364), 271–275. https://doi.org/10.1038/477271a

[30] U.S.EPA. (2018). Overview of greenhouse gases. US EPA; United States Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases

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References
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