Science and Medical Experts Urge White House Not to Rush More Shale Gas Fracking

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Reflections 1: Autumn Leaves in Chinnabee Creek

By Glynn Wilson

A group of scientists, doctors and engineers is urging the White House to slow down on plans for rapid expansion of natural gas development in the United States so that more studies of the negative health and environmental effects can be conducted.

Moving ahead rapidly with plans to approve several new liquefied natural gas terminals would require “a rapid increase in fracking in the United States without credible science” and “could potentially cause undue harm to many Americans,” according to 107 experts who signed on to a petition sent to the White House Thursday.

Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy started the petition in response to the Obama administration’s consideration of fast tracking of the permitting process for LNG export terminals that would trigger a substantial spike in the fracking of U.S. shale gas for export purposes to meet foreign energy demands. The U.S. is on track to become one of the world’s top producers and exporters of natural gas.

There are also plans to open up more federal lands to natural gas drilling, including 43,000 acres in Alabama, mostly in the Talladega National Forest, and government agencies acknowledge that “fracking” is now the method most used by the industry.

The fast track plan to sell mineral rights leases in Alabama to an unknown mining company, potentially Halliburton, by the Bureau of Land Management was stopped in its tracks this past summer by the activism of concerned citizens, watchdog journalism and the filing of a letter of intent to sue by the Southern Environmental Law Center on behalf of WildSouth.org and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Government officials with the U.S. Forest Service tell this news organization that plans are still underway to hold a public meeting at some point to discuss moving forward with the plan to search for natural gas here, although no date or place has been announced.

According to the group of national experts, there is a growing body of evidence that unconventional natural gas extraction from shale (also known as ‘fracking’) may be associated with adverse health risks through exposure to polluted air, water and soil.

“Public health researchers and medical professionals question the continuation of current levels of fracking without a full scientific understanding of the health implications,” Dr. Seth B. Shonkoff, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “The opening of LNG export facilities would serve to accelerate fracking in the United States in absence of sound scientific assessment, placing policy before health.”

Shonkoff said the question before the Obama administration should be very simple.

“Why would the United States dramatically increase the use of an energy extraction method without first ensuring that the trade-off is not the health of Americans in exchange for the energy demands of foreign nations?,” Shonkoff asked.

The health professionals are coming together to urge the White House to make sure that we have the facts prior to making this decision.

“The only prudent thing to do here is to conduct the needed research first,” Shonkoff said.

Dr. Adam Law of the Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca, New York, said researchers are finding measurable levels of pollutants from this industry in air and water that are associated with the risk of illness.

“The first studies to describe this are entering the scientific literature and public health researchers are embarking on multiple approaches to study the associated adverse health effects,” Law said.

Dr. Madelon L. Finkel, professor of clinical public health at Cornell Medical College in New York and director of the Office of Global Health Education, said natural gas has been in these shale formations for millions of years.

“It isn’t going anywhere and will be around for future generations. Society especially owes it to those living in areas with both active and planned drilling to study the potential for harm (to the environment and to human and animal health) and to act to reduce those factors that are shown to increase the risk of disease and even death,” Finkel said.

Louis W. Allstadt, a former executive vice president of Mobil Oil Corporation, says the current unconventional oil and gas drilling process using High Volume Horizontal Hydro-Fracturing is a much more intensive industrial activity than conventional drilling, which was the norm until about 10 years ago.

“It requires far greater volumes of water and chemicals, as well as disposal of much larger volumes of toxic flow-back fluids,” Allstadt said. “We need to fully study and understand the health effects of the significantly greater volumes of toxic materials that must be handled and disposed of with this process.”

The full text of the PSE petition reads as follows:

“We the undersigned medical and scientific professionals urge the Obama Administration to put a hold on moving forward on the construction of new liquefied natural gas terminals for the large-scale exportation of shale gas to foreign nations. Our concern is that the Administration has not fully examined the potential for harm to health and the environment that could result.

There is a growing body of evidence that unconventional natural gas extraction from shale (also known as ‘fracking’) may be associated with adverse health risks through exposure to polluted air, water, and soil.

Public health researchers and medical professionals question the continuation of current levels of fracking without a full scientific understanding of the health implications. The opening of LNG export facilities would serve to accelerate fracking in the United States in absence of sound scientific assessment, placing policy before health.

As the White House and the Department of Energy contemplate exporting LNG to accommodate international demand for energy, the need for a deliberative process based on sound science is all the more important. We assert that a guiding ethical principle for public policy on fracking should parallel that used by physicians: ‘First, do not harm.’

There is a need for much more scientific and epidemiologic information about the potential for harm from fracking. To facilitate a rapid increase in fracking in the United States without credible science is irresponsible and could potentially cause undue harm to many Americans.

Without well-designed scientific studies, we will not know the extent of potential harm from fracking. We strongly urge the Administration to err on the side of caution as it contemplates national policy regarding the exportation of shale gas.

The health professionals below sign as individuals and do not necessarily represent the views of their employer.”

See the full list of signers of the petition here.

Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy is dedicated to supplying objective, evidence-based, scientific information and resources on unconventional gas development (high-volume hydrofracking) and other novel energy production methods. PSE’s mission is to bring transparency to the important scientific and public policy issues surrounding energy, helping to level the playing field for citizens, scientists, advocacy groups, media, and policy-makers.

© 2012, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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