Five years of Shale Gas: Public Health Impacts

The evidence is now clear

Five years ago, American Journal of Public Health  published an article discussing
the potential harm to the environment and human health from horizontal drilling and high volume hydraulic fracturing of shale. At that time the USA were importing oil and gas to meet their demands but the price at pump was high so the pressure to explore locally.

Since 2011, there has been not only a surge in drilling for natural gas and oil in the United
States (e.g., California, Colorado, Louisiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania,
Texas) and in other countries (e.g., Australia), but also a huge increase in the number of published studies focused on environmental and public health impacts associated
with UGD (unconventional gas development).

After five years, the same journal published an update stating that the evidence is clear of the harmful effects on human health and environment from UGD and advises focusing on policies.

We again stress the importance, indeed urgency, to focus on fair and sensible energy
policies, and to be mindful of the implications that such policies have on our environment and on population health. Ignoring the body of evidence, to us, is not viable option anymore.

Read the entire article here.

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US Fracking tour – Day 5 – Pittsburgh and Ithica

Thursday 10th

Morning – Pittsburgh
Professor Tony Ingraffea

Professor Tony Ingraffea

Meeting after meeting after meeting! We started at 9am with a breakfast meeting, then continued with a Republican Congressman till 11.30, when we boarded a bus that took us on a six hour journey to Ithaca, New York State. I don’t know whether it was my imagination or not, but I felt a load lifted off my spirits when we cross the border out of Pennsylvania and into New York! It was not that we saw hundreds of people impacted by fracking, it was the knowledge of what was being done to this beautiful countryside and rural population and what lay ahead for them. Fracking has only started in Pennsylvania – they have fracked 24,000 wells so far but the intention is to frack over 80,000! So the worst is to come and everyone will be impacted. “We are building up a legacy of waste”, said one of the speakers. I think it is worse – they are building up a legacy of harms to the people, to the environment and to the earth.

Important points made by speakers during the day:

  • The industry has built up myths that are now the majority belief, e.g. shale gas is a clean fuel; shale gas can be developed safely.
  • Mythologies – no distinction between fact and fiction
  • Shale gas contribution to the economy and to energy security has been greatly exaggerated.
  •  The shale gas industry is constructing a permanent infrastructure – network of pipelines, compressors, refineries, trains, boats etc. that will be around for two generations
  • They therefore will fight against any technology that could interfere with continuation of shale gas extraction, e.g. renewable energies
  • When they come into an area, they destroy existing economies, e.g. tourism, farming. The dairy industry is weakening in shale gas areas.
  • Hospitalisations increase in areas close to fracking. Medical conditions such as rashes, nosebleeds and asthma appear. Children are worst affected.

Important discourse: Can the industry be regulated safely? There is NO evidence that it can. Hypothetically, it can be improved but not to the extent that we can have confidence that it will cause no harms. Why?

  1. It is a unique industry with unique technologies that we are only learning to use.
  2. It is dispersed through the landscape – pads, pipelines, compressors, with risk of emissions, spillages, accidents.
  3. It extracts stuff that has been in the ground for 100 million years. Huge volumes of wastewater is then dispersed throughout the environment without acceptable means of disposal.

At the end of the day, the only recourse by citizens is through the courts – expensive but the last stand of independent judgement.

Evening – Ithaca

We reached Ithaca – a delightful university town when many of the fracking scientific heroes live – and there they were! Tony Ingraffea, Bob Howarth, Helen Slottje. What a privilege to spend an evening with them and share a lovely Asian meal. I don’t mind admitting that I was awe-struck! And that doesn’t happen too often.

Representatives of the indigenous peoples from the Onondaga Nation were present with Dr Steingraber from the Concerned Health Professionals of New York, several legislators, our fellow campaigner Renee who visited us last Easter with Julia Walsh.  Between courses, we had presentations from all these people, starting off with a prayer from the Onondaga representative, presentations from Tony Ingraffea and Bob Howarth (who showed how shale gas wells leak almost as a matter of course and shale gas is a major contributer to greenhouse gas emissions.

Bob

Professor Bob Howarth with Congresswoman Barbara Lifton

This was heavy stuff but the atmosphere lightened as the focus turned to the successful campaign against fracking in New York.

Renee

Renee

Renee gave an overview of the campaign, the legislators told their story, everyone was so happy that they had succeeded. Important points:

  • The campaign took seven years start to finish
  • Initially, the film Gasland and the word “Frack” were important
  • Important components in the campaign were involvement by small communities to bring in local bans, involvement by celebrities, strategies of direct action, advocacy and shadowing of Cuomo by the campaigners.
  • Most important of all was emphasis on Public Health.

Everyone present were still in a celebratory mood. A few said that it was a miracle that the ban was imposed!  Great credit was given to Governor Cuomo for his wisdom and courage in signing off a prohibition on fracking in New York State.

Believe it or not – at 10.00pm we had to leave the company and get on the bus again! We had to do another 3-hour drive to Albany. At 1.15am, we arrived and once again, fell into bed.

US Frack Tour – Day 4 – Pennsylvania

Wednesday 9th

Vera Scroggins, our courageous tour-guide

Vera Scroggins, our courageous tour-guide

Tour of Frack sites

Today was a highlight of our visit to Pennsylvania – a tour of the areas being fracked with Vera Scroggins as our guide, a truly remarkable lady who is being sued by industry but keeps on showing people the impacts of fracking from a community viewpoint. Cabot, a fracking company, has taken out an injunction against her, she cannot stand on company owned ground, cannot stop within 100 feet of a driveway leading to a wellsite or within 30 feet of a boundary fence. Nevertheless, she brought us into rural areas being fracked and introduced us to individuals who are being severely impacted by fracking operations.

First to describe the countryside. Susquehanna County at first sight is one of the most beautiful countryside I have ever seen – rolling hills, deciduous forests, rivers and farmlands. Dairy farming is big here, and logging of forests. The houses are generally big, with chapboard walls and well maintained. The roads are country roads, networking throughout the land. However, the traffic is far greater than one would expect – large trucks travel at high speeds throughout the area, a symbol of the industry that has drastically invaded this county. Our tour guide told us that while we were travelling on main roads, most side lanes ended in a well pad, hidden from view by the trees. It is only from above that one can get an idea of how invasive the fracking industry is.

Susquehanna River

Susquehanna River

First stop was to Mrs Page, who is one of the few householders in her community who have refused to lease their land to the fracking company. She wanted to protect her property but has found that she is impacted very badly nonetheless with her land covered from time to time with a fine dust, connected with drilling activitiy. Nobody knows what is in this dust but people have histories of allergies and respiratory diseases. Mrs Page has several pipelines snaking around her property and a pig located feet from her boundary.

Dimock

Next stop was to Dimock where we met Ray, an amazing character, ex-military, who has had his life ruined by fracking. He worked on a frack pad for 3 years and has been left with serious skin rashes and respiratory problems. Ray literally has had to evict company personnel and state troopers from his property at gun-point! His water has been contaminated and he trucks in water from Montrose every week. He filled a bucket with water from his well, the smell was indescribable. Someone said that it was like a decaying skunk! The stress of his situation is having a really bad impact on his health and Ray is getting very tired of the fight that he can’t win.

His neighbour is Bill. Bill’s water, which we also saw, has high levels of methane . We saw it bubbling through the water but did not dare to try to light it! Cabot have supplied him with a treatment system that we examined. It looked impressive, including a sprinkler system to remove any gases, two kinds of filters to remove particles, chlorine treatment (as if there were not already enough contaminants in the water), UV lamps to sterilise the water and ozone treatment for odour removal. What was not addressed was the contamination by heavy metal salts that dissolve in the water! This would need active carbon filtration that we didn’t spot. Bill did not drink the water but fed it to his animals and used it for showers etc. The family drank bottled water.

What was truly obvious was that the nearer the houses were to the fracking sites, the poorer they appeared. Fracking money has not filtered through to those communities, country folk who had no idea what they were letting themselves in for when they signed leases. Many have left the area, dairy farms have disappeared, tourism also has suffered.

Pittsburgh

AFTER OUR TOUR, we had our lunch on the bus and spent six hours getting to Pittsburgh, where we had dinner with Riana Rippel, Director of Southwestern Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. This is an NGO funded largely by the Heinz Foundation. Riana dealt with the public health impacts of fracking. In Washington County, near Pittsburgh, there is a real problem with health records, even asthma records are “very patchy”. Health records are not kept if they are related to fracking. Environmental health is not taught in any detail to trainee medical personnel and the Health Project must deliver training to them as an extra. Federal funding is not available in many areas to do wider research.

“With regard to talk of better regulations, you cannot impose “one size fits all” on this industry. Every area is different, every well is different. Major players can sign up to better regs but the work is largely sub-contracted to smaller players who may not be compliant. Whereas there may not be major catastrophes, there are thousands of incidences of spills and contaminations. Spot checks are no good, there is no comprehensive monitoring by EPA of wells, pipelines, compressors. We need the capacity 24/7 to monitor what’s going on.”

Baseline studies are essential! Before the industry gets going, put in place safeguards, good regulations, monitoring systems. Monitor social impacts as well as health – communities overwhelmed by influx of foreign workers. Timing is a key component. “Did you have that kind of condition prior to exposure. Did fracking activity come close to you during the time that you got worse?”  This is NOT scientific research but a strong indicator for companies, lawyers and health officials.

US Fracking Tour Day 3

Tuesday 8th

This was a busy day!  Four meetings of 90 minutes each in three different venues (including the U.S. Capitol !) followed by five hour bus journey to Montrose in rural Pennsylvania. We arrived at our final destination at 11.30pm.

Sierra Club

Lena Moffit (Sierra Club) with Alexandra from Heinrich Boll Foundation

Meeting 1 was with Lena Moffitt in Sierra Club who declared the Sierra Club to be very concerned about fracking. The emphasis is on strengthening regulations and empowering communities to fight against abuses. Three aspects were mentioned

• Zoning ordinances: supporting local citizens to prevent fracking in certain areas or within certain distances from urban areas or buildings. Authorities can pass laws to stop the industry but they are then taken to court.

• Haliburton Loophole: the oil/gas industry is exempt from the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the EPA does not have control over what is injected into the ground. “Chances of passing laws that remove loopholes are very low while the ways in which we fund our elections remain.”

• Support of New York initiative that resulted in ban on fracking in New York State.

Capitol Hill

U.S. Capitol where we met Congressman Polis’ staff

Meeting 2 was with Congressman Polis’ Aide, Jennifer George-Nichol (the Congressman was not able to meet us but Jennifer knew her stuff). The question we posed was “How does Washington deal with the issue of fracking?”

• Local control issues – cities want to impose local regs on fracking (Colerado, Texas). Push-back in Washington from local controls from some quarters, want to keep nationalised policies

• Health impacts – softer issue with support from President. Issue also tied to climate change.

• Clean energy – policy is to support clean energy. However, subsidies for renewables continue to decrease, subsidies for fossil fuels continue to increase! Result of lobbying.

• US supports ALL countries who want to develop their own energy capacity, from shale to solar. COP21 will be a great opportunity for statements from Congressmen.

Meeting 3 was with Tyson Slocum, Director of Public Citizen Energy Program. He was a real marketing guy and focussed on messages given out by the industry in comparison with the realities. “Facts are increasingly irrelevant in Public rhetoric in U.S.!” Non –commercial advertising does not require facts or the truth – depiction of oil/gas industry as clean and family-friendly. Reality is economic benefits but legacy wastes – re-injected water, flowback, changing landscaped, little financial obligation to sort contamination issues.

Recently bill was proposed to require the release of names of ingredients used in fracking fluid prior to injection. This failed because the industry lobbied hard that this could cause delay. Now still only have to tell after. Industry huge – 9 million barrels of oil is produced PER DAY!

We have to redefine the discourse. Set carbon tax – price and dividend. Set price on Carbon, reinvest into households on per capita basis.

Meeting 4 was with David Livingstone from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. David enthusiastically dealt with the global geopolitical issues associated with oil and gas.

Shale gas Mechanism – small companies start drilling, big companies buy them over if successful. In the meantime many fail, penalties not too severe, bankruptcy laws not punitive. There’s no mandate to pursue U.S. national policy, only motivation is short-term profit.

Oil is the engine of globalisation. November 2014, fundamental shift in OPEC choice – because of lowering prices (caused by shale), OPEC had choice – lose market share by cutting back on production or keep producing. They targeted market share in order to push our shale. Big game is to keep the world hooked on oil.

New dynamics – cleap oil, U.S. now smaller importer of oil, China biggest, relies on OPEC. U.S. foreign policy towards China now very important. There’s more pressure on China to step into the role of being guarantor of key transit routes for oil. U.S. is beneficiary, no longer the leader.

Shale Gas: Most companies are operating at a loss. Relying on external injection to capital, need more capaital now. Availability of credit is crucial. Credit facilities are linked with the reserves in the oil-fields. Low oil prices lead tio low-priced reserves, which in turn leads to lower credit.

At the end of the day we were very happy to arrive at our B&B in Montrose.  Photo below.

Montrose

FRACKING BY THE NUMBERS

How big is the fracking industry?

Environment America have produced a report which gives a startling picture of the extent of fracking in US and some of the impacts caused by this industry.  [Download report] “Fracking by the Numbers” needs wide circulation – the scale of the industry and its use of land, water and chemicals is not realised; neither is the scale of the impacts of fracking on water use and contamination as well as air emissions.  The following is a synopsis:

National Environmental and Public Health Impacts of Fracking

• Fracking Wells since 2005 82,000
• Toxic Wastewater Produced in 2012 (billion gallons) 280
• Water Used since 2005 (billion gallons) 250
• Chemicals Used since 2005 (billion gallons) 2
• Air Pollution in One Year (tons) 450,000
• Land Directly Damaged since 2005 (acres) 360,000

Toxic wastewater:

Fracking produces enormous volumes of toxic wastewater—often containing cancer-causing and even radioactive material. Once brought to the surface, this toxic waste poses hazards for drinking water, air quality and public safety:

  • Fracking wells nationwide produced an estimated 280 billion gallons of wastewater in 2012.
  • This toxic wastewater often contains cancer-causing and even radioactive materials, and has contaminated drinking water sources from Pennsylvania to New Mexico. In New Mexico alone, waste pits from all oil and gas drilling have contaminated groundwater on more than 400 occasions.
  • Scientists have linked underground injection of wastewater to earthquakes.
Water use:

Fracking requires huge volumes of water for each well.

  • Fracking operations have used at least 250 billion gallons of water since 2005.
  • While most industrial uses of water return it to the water cycle for further use, fracking converts clean water into toxic wastewater, much of which must then be permanently disposed of, taking billions of gallons out of the water supply annually.
  • Farmers are particularly impacted by fracking water use as they compete with the deep-pocketed oil and gas industry for water, especially in drought-stricken regions of the country.
Chemical use:

Fracking uses a wide range of chemicals, many of them toxic.

  • Operators have hauled more than 2 billion gallons of chemicals to thousands of fracking sites around the country.
  • In addition to other health threats, many of these chemicals have the potential to cause cancer.
  • These toxics can enter drinking water supplies from leaks and spills, through well blowouts, and through the failure of disposal wells receiving fracking wastewater.
Air pollution:

Fracking-related activities release thousands of tons of health-threatening air pollution.

  • Nationally, fracking released 450,000 tons of pollutants into the air that can have immediate health impacts.
  • Air pollution from fracking contributes to the formation of ozone “smog,” which reduces lung function among healthy people, triggers asthma attacks, and has been linked to increases in school absences, hospital visits and premature death. Other air pollutants from fracking and the fossil-fuel-fired machinery used in fracking have been linked to cancer and other serious health effects.
Global warming pollution:

Fracking produces significant volumes of global warming pollution.

  • Methane, which is a global warming pollutant 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, is released at multiple steps during fracking, including during hydraulic fracturing and well completion, and in the processing and transport of gas to end users.
  • Global warming emissions from completion of fracking wells since 2005 total an estimated 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent.
Damage to our natural heritage:

Well pads, new access roads, pipelines and other infrastructure turn forests and rural landscapes into industrial zones.

  • Infrastructure to support fracking has damaged 360,000 acres of land for drilling sites, roads and pipelines since 2005.
  • Forests and farmland have been replaced by well pads, roads, pipelines and other gas infrastructure, resulting in the loss of wildlife habitat and fragmentation of remaining wild areas. In Colorado, fracking has already damaged 57,000 acres of land, equal to one-third of the acreage in the state’s park system.
  • The oil and gas industry is seeking to bring fracking into our national forests, around several of our national parks, and in watersheds that supply drinking water to millions of Americans.
Fracking has additional impacts not quantified here

—including contamination of residential water wells by fracking fluids and methane leaks; vehicle and workplace accidents, earthquakes and other public safety risks; and economic and social damage including ruined roads and damage to nearby farms.

To address the environmental and public health threats from fracking across the nation:

States should prohibit fracking. Given the scale and severity of fracking’s myriad impacts, constructing a regulatory regime sufficient to protect the environment and public health from dirty drilling—much less enforcing such safeguards at more than 80,000 wells, plus processing and waste disposal sites across the country—seems implausible. In states where fracking is already underway, an immediate moratorium is in order. In all other states, banning fracking is the prudent and necessary course to protect the environment and public health.

• Given the drilling damage that state officials have allowed fracking to incur thus far, at a minimum, federal policymakers must step in and close the loopholes exempting fracking from key provisions of our nation’s environmental laws.

• Federal officials should also protect America’s natural heritage by keeping fracking away from our national parks, national forests, and sources of drinking water for millions of Americans.

• To ensure that the oil and gas industry—rather than taxpayers, communities or families—pays the costs of fracking damage, policymakers should require robust financial assurance from fracking operators at every well site.

More complete data on fracking should be collected and made available to the public, enabling us to understand the full extent of the harm that fracking causes to our environment and health.

Defining “Fracking”

In this report, when we refer to the impacts of “fracking,” we include impacts resulting from all of the activities needed to bring a shale gas or oil well into production using high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracturing operations that use at least 100,000 gallons of water), to operate that well, and to deliver the gas or oil produced from that well to market. The oil and gas industry often uses a more restrictive definition of “fracking” that includes only the actual moment in the extraction process when rock is fractured—a definition that obscures the broad changes to environmental, health and community conditions that result from the use of fracking in oil and gas extraction.

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