Follow me on Twitter: @JohnHQuigley

Friday, October 19, 2012

Study: Gas drilling makes people sick. More study urgently needed.

A study by Earthworks entitled Gas Patch Roulette: How Shale Gas Development Risks Public Health in Pennsylvania concludes that drilling for Marcellus shale gas in Pennsylvania has triggered respiratory problems, fatigue, severe headaches, and skin rashes among nearby residents, and the closer they live to drilling, the higher the incidence of such problems.

The study relied on health surveys of 108 individuals living in 55 households in 14 Pennsylvania counties, and on air and water testing that was conducted on the properties of a subset of survey participants (70 people in total) in order to identify the presence of pollutants that might be linked to both gas development and health symptoms.  In total, 34 air tests and 9 water tests were conducted at 35 households in 9 counties.

The main conclusions of the report are:

1.      Contaminants associated with oil and gas development are present in air and water in many communities where development is occurring.
2.      Many residents have developed health symptoms that they did not have before—indicating the strong possibility that they are occurring because of gas development.
3.      By permitting widespread gas development without fully understanding its impacts to public health—and using that lack of knowledge to justify regulatory inaction—Pennsylvania and other states are risking the public’s health.

An industry spokesman questioned the study methodology. The report, however, was candid about its limitations, noting for example, that “this project did not investigate additional factors that can influence health conditions or cause symptoms (e.g., through structured control groups in non-impacted areas and in-depth comparative health history research).”

The results of the study are troubling.  The limitations of the study must be fully understood.  At a minimum, the report underscores something that is already acknowledged: the obvious need for further, rigorous scientific research on the health impacts of natural gas drilling.  It also points to the equally obvious need to immediately move to measures that minimize air and water emissions, like requirements to use best available pollution control technologies on drilling equipment; to use closed-loop, closed-container systems for handling drilling fluids, and ultimately to develop waterless, chemical-free fracking methods.  I discussed both topics a a recent talk in Washington D.C.

Without a healthy dose of science, the question of whether gas drilling makes people sick won’t go away; people may suffer avoidable harms; and the industry will face continued threats to its social license to operate.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

PA State Assn of Boroughs, Carnegie Mellon University compile shale gas research

The Pennsylvania State Association of Boroughs (PSAB) and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) have partnered to create an on-line repository of over 1200 research articles  on shale gas drilling.

The catalogued research includes peer-reviewed journal research articles and research funded either by the shale industry or by environmental organizations that has not been peer-reviewed. PSAB and CMU hope to refine the way the articles are categorized, and to update the site with the ever-growing amount of research being done on shale gas extraction and its impacts.

The research guide is an excellent resource.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

CA sued over fracking – access to U.S.’s largest oil shale formation in doubt. Is there a better way?

Five environmental groups filed a lawsuit this week that would force California regulators to study the possible effects on groundwater and air quality before allowing companies use hydraulic fracturing.

The suit alleges that state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, which reviews proposed fracking projects, has violated the California Environmental Quality Act by not requiring an environmental impact report for them.

While oil companies have fracked wells in California for decades, its use within the state is on the rise, and the stakes are high.  California may have the nation's largest oil shale formation - the Monterey Shale, which lies beneath much of Central California. The Monterey could hold more than 15 billion barrels of oil, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The lawsuit provides me with a bit of an I-told-you-so moment. The issues at the heart of the California lawsuit flow from the use of water and chemicals for fracking. On September 25, I had the honor of delivering the keynote address  at shale gas event in Washington, D.C. that was hosted by The Howard Baker Forum and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  In my talk, I called on the gas industry to adopt an aspirational goal of eliminating the use of water and chemicals from shale gas development.   Among a long list of reasons why this is in the public interest and in the financial interest of oil and gas companies, I gave this example:

Titan Oil and Gas is proposing to drill one exploratory unconventional well in Kern County, California.  Recently, (the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources) issued a finding of no significant impact for that single well. In response, The Center for Biological Diversity submitted this petition challenging the finding – an 83-page compendium of issues and allegations against fracking. 

The gas industry can either spend the next decade responding to 83 pages of charges, and perhaps fight the battle well-by-well. Or they can change the entire fracking paradigm and choose a way that can reconcile both society's and industry's goals. 

It will take vision – and the ability to imagine a fundamentally different approach.  But the stakes justify the efforts.

With access to the U.S.’s largest oil shale field in doubt; with moratoria posing serious access challenges for oil and gas producers; and with persistent concerns about the U.S. fracking experience in the EU, China, Canada, and South Africa, there is, as Maria van der Hoeven, the Executive Director of the International Energy Agency, has warned, “a very real possibility that public opposition…will halt…fracking in its tracks.”

The stakes are indeed high. Will the industry go beyond incremental progress and change the fracking paradigm?