Federal Panel Set to Take Up Fracking Health Issues

The federal Shale Gas Production Subcommittee has commissioned a study to review the effects of shale gas drilling and health. Shale gas drilling employs the controversial method of gas extraction known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The Shale Gas Production Subcommittee was convened by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu at the direction of President Barack Obama to study the controversial method of natural gas extraction. Last week the subcommittee concluded in a report that fracking could be done safely if rigorous emission standards, close monitoring of groundwater quality, and other safeguards are employed.

In fracking, a cocktail of water, sand and chemicals is injected into the ground at high pressure to shake loose gas and oil deposits. Opponents of fracking are concerned that this type of natural gas drilling could lead to pollution of vital drinking water sources, either through the release of naturally-occurring hazardous substances or as a result of spills or leaks involving fracking fluid or fracking wastewater. The subcommittee’s report validated environmentalists’ concerns about fracking, and warned those issues threatened public acceptance of shale gas drilling.

The subcommittee called for the adoption of steps that it said would ensure fracking is conducted safely, including:

• stronger air quality regulations,
• disclosure of air pollutants and the types of chemicals used in the process,
• a study of water quality issues,
• the creation of industry best practices,
• more public education to help people understand the process.

The panel’s report did not, however, address fracking’s potential health consequences. According to a report from The New York Times, the subcommittee’s chair, John Deutch, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, mentioned it had commissioned a health review yesterday, during a teleconference to submit its report to the full advisory panel. Deutch said his colleague, MIT economist Michael Greenstone, would review what information is available about the relationship between shale drilling and health.

According to the Times, Greenstone has served on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Science Advisory Board’s Environmental Economics Advisory Committee, and he served as the chief economist on the Council of Economic Advisors during President Obama’s first term. He has worked on research to assess the costs and benefits of the Clean Air Act, and is working on a large-scale project to estimate the economic costs of climate change.

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