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Fracking in Wyoming
Fracking in Wyoming. Four fracking pads for every square kilometer.
One of the key problems with hydraulic fracturing—"fracking"—aimed at freeing natural gas and oil from tight shale formations is how little we know for certain about the environmental and health effects. Industry and its sycophants would have us believe that the risks are few if any.

But the evidence is growing that this is far from the case. A new study from the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SPEHP) published in Reviews on Environmental Health and an analysis by the Center for Sustainable Development (CSD) at University of Texas published in the Virginia Environmental Law Journal point out that not only do we not know enough about this process that is being touted as a welcome American renaissance in fossil fuel energy production, but we don't have the proper tools to measure or regulate it.

Here's Rachael Rawlins at the CSD:

Under both the state and federal programs, the regulation of hazardous air emissions from gas operations is based largely on questions of cost and available technology. There is no comprehensive cumulative risk assessment to consider the potential impact to public health in urban areas. Drilling operations are being conducted in residential areas. Residents living in close proximity to gas operations on the Barnett Shale have voiced serious concerns for their health, which have yet to be comprehensively evaluated. Given the complexity of the science, and the dearth of clear, transparent, and enforceable standards, inadequate studies and limited statistical analysis have been allowed to provide potentially false assurances. The politically expedient bottom line dominates with little attention paid to the quality of the science or the adequacy of the standards.
Rawlins and former University of Montana professor Maria Morandi took a second look at a state of Texas analysis of cancer-causing emissions around the city Flower Mound, where shale gas development is underway. The state study couldn’t confirm with 99 percent certainty that childhood leukemia rates were higher in the area. It did confirm with 99 percent certainty that breast cancer rates were higher there. But it concluded that toxic emissions had nothing to do with the increase. The Rawlins-Morandi reanalysis, however, found with 95 percent certainty that childhood leukemia rates in Flower Mound are not a random occurrence.

Here's David Brown, lead author of the SPEHP study, writing in the abstract of "Understanding exposure from natural gas drilling puts current air standards to the test":

Currently, human health risks near [unconventional natural gas development] sites are derived from average population risks without adequate attention to the processes of toxicity to the body. The objective of this paper is to illustrate that current methods of collecting emissions data, as well as the analyses of these data, are not sufficient for accurately assessing risks to individuals or protecting the health of those near UNGD sites.
While the industrial propagandists and their marionettes in Congress and state legislatures like to downplay any possible problems arising from the drive to spread fracking far and wide, those problems are profoundly troubling.

More on this subject below the fold.

It wasn't so very long ago that the idea fracking and its associated disposal wells could cause earthquakes was sneered at as extremist nonsense. Not so crazy after all, we've learned.

Bobby Magill at Climate Central writes:

[T]he gap in scientists' understanding of what shale oil and gas development means for the environment and human health is significant, said Susan Brantley, a Pennsylvania State University biogeochemist studying the impacts of shale gas development in Pennsylvania. Brantley, unaffiliated with the UT-Austin study, is among the scientists who have spoken out about the fracking data gap.

"A few health studies have been initiated, but data are few and far between that allow scientists to interpret potential impacts," Brantley said via email. "In addition, the lack of federal oversight on a lot of activity which is controlled by the states makes for difficulties for scientists to evaluate or even get hold of needed data. In Pennsylvania, it is even difficult to determine exactly where spills have occurred, let alone the volume of the spill, the timing or the chemicals that were spilled."

The situation prompted the Inspector General's Office of the Environmental Protection Agency to state in a report last year:  
Recent and projected growth in the oil and gas production sector has underscored the need for EPA to gain a better understanding of emissions and potential risks from this industry sector. Harmful pollutants emitted from this industry include air toxics such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene; criteria pollutants and ozone precursors such as NOx and VOCs; and greenhouse gases such as methane. These pollutants can result in serious health impacts such as cancer, respiratory disease, aggravation of respiratory illnesses, and premature death. However, EPA has limited directly-measured air emissions data on criteria and toxic air pollutants for several important oil and gas production processes. [These] limited data, coupled with poor quality and insufficient emission factors and incomplete NEI data, hamper EPA’s ability to assess air quality impacts from selected oil and gas production activities.
Rawlins calls for adequate funding of regulators so they can track toxic emissions from fracking. “It’s not just Texas," she says. "It’s at the national level as well.”

Indeed it is. But given the anti-regulatory attitude in many states as well as in Congress, and given the immense political clout of the petrochemical industry, getting adequate funding and improving regulations to protect health is, to say the least, a difficult proposition.

To say nothing of the impact of the burgeoning fracking process on global warming—what with the high potential for methane emissions associated with prying hydrocarbons from the rock. Fracking seems like a prime candidate for generating, 10 or 20 years down the road, one of those scandalous reports of devastating effects nobody could have predicted.

Originally posted to Meteor Blades on Mon Apr 07, 2014 at 10:57 AM PDT.

Also republished by Gulf Watchers Group, Climate Change SOS, and Daily Kos.

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