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Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Fracking studies on the rise reports today that the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council (NRC) plans to launch a preliminary review of the potential human and environmental risks of shale gas development, and in particular hydraulic fracturing.   The initial review could lead to comprehensive nation-wide study of the direct and indirect risks associated with shale gas extraction.

The studies are propelled by continuing public alarm over the risks of shale gas development, the industry’s continued resistance to more stringent regulation at state and Federal levels, and what has appeared to be lip service from the industry about addressing public concerns.

NRC is the latest Federal agency to enter the fracking fray.  EPA is conducting a study of the impact of fracking on drinking water and last year, the Secretary of Energy’s Shale Gas Subcommittee made recommendations how to make the process safer. Further, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) is reportedly looking into health risks of fracking. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies is working to identify human health concerns associated with shale gas development and examine potential frameworks, such as health impact assessments, for filling some of the data gaps.  With over ten thousand shale gas wells permitted in Pennsylvania alone, and with the industry galloping ahead nationwide, there is a lot of catching up to do.

The NRC project is primarily funded by the National Science Foundation, and will solicit stakeholder input on risks associated with natural gas production – including socioeconomic and other impacts - on rural communities.  NRC will then commission a series of papers to assess the knowledge base and state of science on those issues.  Once complete, NRC will conduct two workshops using those results - the first looking at the characterization of risks, and the second on governance.  That second workshop will reportedly include examining the exemptions of hydraulic fracturing from the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, and state regulatory regimes.

Meanwhile, here in Pensylvania, the Geisinger Health System wants to use its huge database of electronic health records to help researchers get definitive answers on the health impacts of gas drilling.

These studies put the spotlight on the proper role of government and of science in wrestling fracking’s issues to the ground.  State and Federal rules on fracking – and the industry’s own practices - should go where the science leads.  But this should not just be about studies by concerned interests outside of the gas industry.  There is opportunity here for the industry to lead. To engage with stakeholders in a deeper and more transparent way and embrace rules that will separate the best actors in the industry from the poorer ones. To arrive at a real win-win-win for the environment, the economy, and shareholders.  Will that happen?

Along with these studies, we must weigh the economic, security, and – critically, climate - benefits of shale gas, to arrive at the best policies to responsibly develop and use this resource and propel renewable energy development at the same time.

There is much work to do.

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