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Thursday, August 2, 2012

Gas drilling and public health: unanswered questions, unmet research needs, people at risk


Too much of the continually swirling controversy about unconventional natural gas drilling is characterized by hyperbole, by emotion, by he said-she said reporting, and by a series of monologues from industry champions and critics, instead of much-needed dialogue.

Left unanswered in all of what passes for debate are the central questions - the answers to which can’t be found unless we do the science needed to get the facts. And we are not doing nearly enough of it.

There is some critical research being done about the impacts of fracking, both on-the-ground and under it, and some very important socio-economic research is being conducted on the impacts to communities.  Then there is the kind of industry-funded research that at the very least raises questions, or is downright embarrassing in its full-throated industry cheerleading - which succeeds only in adding to public distrust. We need more of the former, and none of the latter.

But does gas drilling make people sick?  It is one of the most troubling questions of all, but despite recognition of the environmental public health concerns related to drilling, public health experts have been missing from the table of state and national advisory committees.  And we are hardly even in the game when it comes to research on the potential public health impacts of the shale gas era, and that is further feeding public fear, potentially exposing people to avoidable risks, and presenting a looming threat of litigation and other costly problems for the industry itself.

This year alone, Federal and Keystone State legislators have stepped away from the research table.  A U.S. House of Representatives committee refused an Obama administration request to fund $4.25 million in research on how drilling may affect water quality, and prior to the passage of Pennsylvania’s Act 13, the Pennsylvania General Assembly stripped out $2 million of proposed funding that would have supported a statewide health registry to track illnesses potentially related to gas drilling. Some noble community-level efforts have been made to begin to fill the public health vacuum, but without comprehensive medical reviews and robust research, the worries about the possible health effects of gas drilling will not go away – and people may suffer harms that can be avoided.

The worries are amplified by new research from Pennsylvania on the impacts of natural gas extraction on the health of newborn babies that was released before being subjected to peer review.  That possible rush to judgment comes soon after
opponents of gas drilling have come under fire for sometimes misleading the public on the health impacts of drilling. 

Some studies on the human risks of fracking are underway; other efforts are building, but searching for funding.  (Full disclosure: I am consulting to the Geisinger Health System Foundation.)  But with a comparative dearth of government support for public health research, researchers turn to philanthropic foundations – and to industry, again raising the question of whether industry-supported research is tainted.

We must solve the public health research funding conundrum and get badly-needed research, protection of people – and real dialogue - underway now.




Wednesday, August 1, 2012

A 40 year plan to get off coal and oil

Amory Lovins, co-founder, chairman, and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute lays out a visionary plan to end the world's reliance on coal and oil without government intervention in this fascinating talk that is at once inspiring, challenging, and hopeful.



Lovins' approach relies on reduction of energy waste, revolutionary but rational design processes, and diverse renewable energy supplies distributed on a smart grid. It's worth noting that Lovins sees natural gas an an essential transition fuel to the hopeful future he describes.


The cost?  Six trillion dollars - a level of investment that Lovins says is going to be made in energy anyway over the next four decades. 


Perhaps the biggest challenge of all in Lovins' approach is that it relies on new ways of thinking, and the grinding of new lenses through which investment decisions must be viewed. Until the optics change, there is an urgent need and a clear role for bold government policy to speed us on our way.


The video is worth watching.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A focus on PA’s methane migration problems


The English poet Samuel Johnson famously wrote that “Nothing focuses the mind like a hanging.”

In Pennsylvania, the natural gas industry may be hanging itself by continuing to present a cautionary tale to the world.

Last week, I had dinner with representatives of the French government who were in Pennsylvania to gather information on the impacts of natural gas drilling in the Keystone State. This was my second meeting with officials from that nation.  Last spring, I met with two members of the French Senate who were on a similar fact-finding mission before voting on the enactment of a ban on fracking that remains in effect. 

All of these officials recognized the complexity of the issues surrounding unconventional gas development: the significant economic and energy security benefits, the opportunity to combat climate disruption, the unanswered questions, the impacts on public health, and more.

But what tends to focus the mind – like a hanging – are the graphic incidents in Pennsylvania like this one:



A methane geyser in Tioga County, PA

StateImpact PA has compiled this excellent report on methane migration problems that continue to plague gas drilling in Pennsylvania. This is a particularly troublesome problem, and not only for its environmental impacts - investors have called on the gas industry to minimize its methane emissions.

Incidents like these do not build confidence in the industry. And that could have implications not only here, but in countries that have banned the practice (France Switzerland, Bulgaria), and in nations like China that are eyeing the performance of the gas industry here as it considers auctioning gas development rights.
  
Stronger regulation, better pre-drilling planning to understand Pennsylvania’s complex geology and its local variations before a drill bit cuts into the ground, and drastically improved industry performance are all needed for the gas industry to bring its methane problem under control and avoid hanging itself.