September 14, 2011
Last Wednesday while executives from the Marcellus Shale Coalition met inside the Philadelphia Convention Center, I joined several hundred activists outside to rally against high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking.” This relatively new natural-gas extraction process is at the center of a growing tension: the urgency to discover new, “unconventional” fuel sources to replace diminishing conventional fossil fuel supplies, and the process required to adequately assess potential environmental and human health risks before embracing new energy sources.
In some communities where fracking is underway, alarm has been raised because fracking has been implicated in public health risks, tainting drinking water supplies and more recently even poisoning animals raised for food. (This chart explains fracking’s potential impacts on agriculture.)
Unfortunately, very few studies have been conducted to rigorously assess the environmental and public health harms of natural gas fracking, a process that pumps large quantities of high-pressured water, chemicals and sand deep into the ground to fracture layers of shale rock, releasing tiny bubbles of natural gas which are locked away in the bedrock (check out this excellent The New York Times graphic). But preliminary research verifies the need for further study of the environmental and human health consequences of fracking. Most recently a 2011 Duke University study demonstrated that private drinking wells near fracking sites contained significantly higher concentrations of methane than sites located above similar geological formations; some of the wells contained methane at levels considered an explosion hazard. (See the EPA’s draft study plan for information on the associated chemicals and byproducts of fracking; the list includes radioactive materials, endocrine disruptors, and other cancer and disease causing compounds). And earlier this year, researchers from Cornell Medical College, in an American Journal of Public Health commentary, invoked the precautionary principle in response to the acceleration of shale gas extraction and lack of good research on its potential impacts on human health.
Despite all these good reasons to proceed with caution, the fracking industry is set to expand rapidly in the coming decades, with the U.S. Energy Information Administration (USEIA) anticipating that shale gas will represent 45 percent of all U.S. natural gas by 2035, compared to just 14 percent in 2009 and approximately 5 percent in 2005 (Figure 1). So why the big hurry?
A part of the answer to that question is peak oil. As conventional fuel sources (like crude oil) are depleted, the United States faces serious questions about its future energy policies—we could choose to anticipate the future public health consequences of petroleum deficits, making adaptations that would offer some protection for those most likely to be affected (for a discussion of how the public health sector can prepare for peak oil, see “Peak Oil, Food Systems, and Public Health,” Roni Neff et al., AJPH), and exploring more sustainable energy sources. Instead, the U.S. continues to focus on exploring unconventional fossil fuels, such as shale gas and, most recently in the news, tar sands. Just two weeks ago one of the environmental movement’s biggest civil disobedience actions in decades took place outside the gates of the White House to protest the proposed Keystone Pipeline XL project, which would link tar sands production facilities in Canada with oil refineries in Mexico, cutting across the whole of Middle America. (Cindy Parker, Assistant Professor of Environmental Health Sciences at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, wrote about her arrest.) The tar sands industry has been widely criticized for a litany of environmental harms, including habitat destruction, excessive water use and water pollution, and especially high contributions of greenhouse gas emissions compared to other oil sources. Both of these newer, unconventional fossil fuels typically require larger amounts of energy (and in turn, fossil fuels) to extract, compared to sources like crude oil. (See chart, below.)
But just as it’s important to recognize the energy inefficiency of these newer fossil fuels, we must acknowledge the externalized costs of these sources, which often place a greater burden on the health of the environment, our food system, and in turn the public’s health, as well. And in the rush to satiate our fossil fuel needs, research into the environmental and public health harms of these newer energy sources has been taking a back seat to expanding extractive fuel industries.
The little research on the impacts of fracking conducted so far has focused almost exclusively on groundwater and drinking water pollution. But it isn’t difficult to see how if water sources are being contaminated by fracking, the food we eat might be as well. And as Gilt Taste reported, this has already occurred in Pennsylvania, where cattle were quarantined last year after they came into contact with fracking wastewater. But this is only anecdotal: echoing the precautionary principle, not only do we need further research on how fracking affects our water supply, we need research into fracking’s potential impact on the food supply and farming systems.
As peak oil continues to challenge America’s energy security, regulatory agencies will become increasingly important for ensuring that the safety of the environment, human health, and our food system are prioritized over extracting energy-inefficient, increasingly dirty forms of fossil fuels. Here in Maryland, Governor O’Malley made a wise decision in issuing an executive order this past June effectively putting a two-year moratorium on fracking the Marcellus Shale of Western Maryland until an environmental impact assessment could be conducted after a similar measure failed in the State Senate earlier this year.