Missing from the Table: Role of the Environmental Public Health Community in Governmental Advisory Commissions Related to Marcellus Shale Drilling

Article excerpt

BACKGROUND: The Marcellus Shale is a vast natural gas field underlying parts of Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia, Virginia, and Maryland. Rapid development of this field has been enabled by advances in hydrofracking techniques that include injection of chemical and physical agents deep underground. Response to public concern about potential adverse environmental and health impacts has led to the formation of state and national advisory committees.

OBJECTIVES: We review the extent to which advisory committees formed in 2011 by President Obama and governors of the states of Maryland and Pennsylvania contain individuals with expertise pertinent to human environmental public health. We also analyze the extent to which human health issues are of concern to the public by reviewing presentations at the public meeting of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SLAB) Natural Gas Subcommittee formed by the U.S. President's directive.

RESULTS: At a public hearing held by the SEAB Natural Gas Subcommittee 62.7% of those not in favor of drilling mentioned health issues. Although public health is specified to be a concern in the executive orders forming these three advisory committees, we could identify no individuals with health expertise among the 52 members of the Pennsylvania Governor's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, the Maryland Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission, or the SEAB Natural Gas Subcommittee.

CONCLUSIONS: Despite recognition of the environmental public health concerns related to drilling in the Marcellus Shale, neither state nor national advisory committees selected to respond to these concerns contained recognizable environmental public health expertise.

KEY WORDS: drilling, hydrofracking, Marcellus Shale, natural gas, policy. Environ Health Perspect 120:483-486 (2012). http://dx.doi.org/10.1289/ehp.1104594 [Online 10 January 2012]

The development of hydrofracking technology has led to rapid growth in drilling for oil and natural gas in the United States and globally. Public concern about potential environmental and public health consequences has led to the formation of governmental advisory committees that are looking at the risks and consequences of the drilling activity. In 2011, President Barack Obama and the governors of Pennsylvania and Maryland independently established commissions to provide advice about a broad range of issues related to drilling for natural gas.

The Marcellus Shale is a rich natural gas field, said to be the second largest in the world, that extends under much of Pennsylvania, New York, and West Virginia and parts of Maryland, Ohio, Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee (Considine et al. 2010). The technology that permits access to natural gas in the Marcellus Shale includes drilling first vertically to the shale level and then horizontally within the shale (Arthur et al. 2009; Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection 2011). Holes are then cut in the horizontal pipe, followed by injection of high volumes of hydraulic fracturing fluids (primarily water and sand plus chemical additives) to break open the shale layers and maintain gas flow (for a compendium of links to research and data on the Marcellus Shale, see FracTracker 2011).

The amount of water used is in the range of a million gallons per well injected over perhaps days to a few weeks (New York City Department of Environmental Protection 2009), and the level of chemicals additives is in the range of 0.5-2.0% [U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) 2009]. About 30-70% of the fracking fluid returns to the surface and must be discharged somewhere (DOE 2009). Specific chemical and physical agents used in the fracking mixture to increase the release and flow of the fossil fuel and prevent microbial growth, corrosion, and scale formation vary by company and by location. Lists of these additives have been published (U.S. House of Representatives 2011), and some companies have been cooperative in revealing additives used (FracFocus Chemical Disclosure Registry 2011; Range Resources 2010), but the lack of complete information complicates interpretation of public complaints about health impacts. …