The U.S. should declare a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in populated areas until the health effects are better understood, doctors said at a conference on the drilling process.
Gas producers should set up a foundation to finance studies on fracking and independent research is also needed, said Jerome Paulson, a pediatrician at George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington. Top independent producers include Chesapeake Energy Corp. and Devon Energy Corp., both of Oklahoma City, and Encana Corp. of Calgary, according to Bloomberg Industries.
“We’ve got to push the pause button, and maybe we’ve got to push the stop button” on fracking, said Adam Law, an endocrinologist at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, in an interview at a conference in Arlington, Virginia that’s the first to examine criteria for studying the process.
Fracking injects water, sand and chemicals into deep shale formations to free trapped natural gas. A boom in production with the method helped increase supplies, cutting prices 32 percent last year. The industry, though, hasn’t disclosed enough information on chemicals used, Paulson said, raising concerns about tainted drinking water supplies and a call for peer-reviewed studies on the effects. The EPA is weighing nationwide regulation.
“We need to understand fully all of the chemicals that are shot into the ground, that could impact the water that children drink,” Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts, a senior Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said in a phone interview. The industry is trying “to block that information from being public,” he said.
The gas industry has used hydraulic fracturing for 65 years in 30 states with a “demonstrable history of safe operations,” said Chris Tucker, a spokesman for Energy In Depth, a Washington-based research and advocacy group financed by oil and gas interests, in an e-mail. Drilling in shale deposits in the eastern U.S. began in 2004.
Gas drillers have to report to the U.S., state and local authorities any chemicals used in fracking that are “considered hazardous in high concentrations” in case of spills or other emergencies, Tucker said. Those reports don’t include amounts or concentrations, he said.
The industry created a public website last April for companies to voluntarily report lists of chemicals used in individual wells, including concentrations. Colorado and Wyoming have passed laws requiring drillers to file reports to the website, Tucker said.
Despite those disclosures, U.S. officials say they don’t know all of the hazards associated with fracking chemicals.
“We don’t know the chemicals that are involved, really; we sort of generally know,” Vikas Kapil, chief medical officer at National Center for Environmental Health, part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said at the conference. “We don’t have a great handle on the toxicology of fracking chemicals.”
The government has found anecdotal evidence that drilling can contaminate water supplies. In December, the EPA reported that underground aquifers and drinking wells in Pavillion, Wyoming, contained compounds that probably came from gas drilling, including glycols, alcohols, benzene and methane. The CDC has detected “explosive levels of methane” in two wells near gas sites in Medina, Ohio, Kapil said.
He said he wasn’t authorized to take reporters’ questions after his presentation.
Fluids used in hydraulic fracturing contain “potentially hazardous chemical classes,” Kapil’s boss, Christopher Portier, director of The National Center for Environmental Health, said last week. The compounds include petroleum distillates, volatile organic compounds and glycol ethers, he said. Wastewater from the wells can contain salts and radiation, Portier said.
U.S. natural gas production rose to a record 2.5 trillion cubic feet in October, a 15 percent increase from October 2008.
A moratorium on fracking pending more health research “would be reasonable,” said Paulson, who heads the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health and the Environment in Washington, in an interview. His group is funded in part by the CDC and Environmental Protection Agency, he said, and helped sponsor the conference with Law’s organization, Physicians Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy.
Tucker called the CDC’s participation in the conference “disappointing,” saying the conference is “a closed-door pep-rally against oil and natural gas development.”
Representatives of Chevron Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp. and the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group, registered to attend the conference.