Public Health Effects of Fracking Need Study, CDC Scientist Says

The U.S. should study whether hydraulic fracturing used to free natural gas from wells is a hazard to people or food sources, a top official at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The Environmental Protection Agency, which is preparing regulations to govern fracking with the Interior Department, plans to study the effect of the drilling procedure, also known as fracking, on drinking water. Additional studies should examine whether wastewater from the wells can harm people or animals and vegetables they eat, said Christopher Portier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

“We do not have enough information to say with certainty whether shale gas drilling poses a threat to public health,” he said in an e-mail sent by Vivi Abrams, a spokeswoman.

President Barack Obama has lauded increased natural gas drilling as a way to reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil and on coal, which is more damaging to the environment when burned. Officials in his administration have been cautious when discussing possible health effects of hydraulic fracturing.

The EPA “will use its authorities to protect local residents if a driller endangers water supplies and the state and local authorities have not acted,” the agency’s administrator, Lisa Jackson, told Congress in May. Obama, she said, “has made clear that we need to extract natural gas without polluting our water supplies.”

Monitor Exposure

The fracking process injects water, sand and chemicals into deep shale formations to free natural gas. The compounds used should be monitored, Portier said, and drinking water wells should be tested before and after drilling. Studies also should address “all the ways people can be exposed” to fracking products, including through air, water, soil, plants and animals.

Increased use of the process has raised gas production, reduced prices 32 percent last year and spurred questions about the environmental effects.

The U.S. has sought to dismiss a lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman against federal agencies, seeking stronger regulation of fracking at as many as 18,000 wells in his state. The petroleum industry says the lawsuit could shut down drilling in the Delaware River Basin “for many years to come” if successful.

‘Effective’ Regulation

“Measures required by state regulatory agencies in the exploration and production of deep shale natural gas and oil formations have been very effective in protecting drinking water aquifers from contamination attributable to fracking,” Chesapeake Energy, the second-largest producer of natural gas, said in a document in September explaining the process.

Portier wouldn’t say whether fracking should be stopped or more tightly regulated until studies are completed.

“Our role is to determine what the risks are, and it is up to the public to decide if they are OK with that risk,” he said.

U.S. natural gas production rose to a record 2.5 trillion cubic feet in October, a 15 percent increase from October 2008, the month before Obama was elected, according to an Energy Information Administration report issued Dec. 28.

Some “data of concern” are showing up at fracking sites, Portier said. Fluids used in drilling contain “potentially hazardous chemical classes” including petroleum distillates, volatile organic compounds and glycol ethers. Wastewater may also contain salts and be radioactive, he said.

In December, the EPA said for the first time that it had found chemicals consistent with those used in drilling in groundwater near wells in Wyoming. The driller, Encana Corp., has disputed the agency’s findings.

Methane, Earthquakes

Pennsylvania regulators warned residents near Scranton not to drink well water in September 2010 after methane was detected in the Susquehanna River and in wells near drilling sites.

Youngstown, Ohio residents say they’ve experienced earthquakes since D&L Energy Inc. began injecting fracking wastewater into a 9,300-foot disposal well. Ben Lupo, president and chief executive officer of the company, said he doesn’t think his well is causing the temblors.

While the federal government prepares fracking regulations, states also monitor the process, which has led the industry to complain of unnecessary supervision.

The Obama administration is pursuing “an incoherent approach to natural gas development” by promoting its benefits while “ratcheting up pressure for new layers of duplicative regulations,” said Jack Gerard, president of the American Petroleum Institute, in remarks prepared for a speech today.

The institute represents more than 490 energy companies including Exxon Mobil Corp., the world’s largest company by market value.

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