Science panel to scrutinize shale gas drilling

Workshop in D.C. to concentrate on pollution issues

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A National Academy of Sciences committee will review a host of risks and public concerns associated with shale gas drilling operations nationwide -- what's known and much that isn't -- during a two-day workshop starting next Thursday and Friday in Washington, D.C.

Presentations at the gathering will focus on air and water pollution -- and the health, economic, social and climate change impacts of shale gas development -- but will stop short of making recommendations about how best to manage and mitigate them.

"This review will be successful if the current state of knowledge about shale gas drilling is clarified and the uncertainties identified so we have better understanding and insights to help manage the risks," said Mitchell Small, the NAS committee chair and Carnegie Mellon University professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He will moderate a discussion this morning on a survey of concerns about lesser-studied drilling issues including impacts on rural quality of life, domestic animals, industry transparency and social justice.

Paul Stern, director of the review and senior scholar with the academy's Board on Environmental Change and Society, said the review's goal is to pull together the best available information for use by national and state policymakers.

"This is a big picture look at what's next," Mr. Stern said. "It would be great if we were asked to take the next step, to study and make recommendations about how to proceed, but this will provide a stronger knowledge base for upcoming public policy debates."

The academy was established in 1863 to investigate, report and make recommendations on scientific issues that are part of public policy debates. But neither the Obama administration nor Congress has asked for, or funded, a full-blown study with recommendations on how best to regulate the risks of so-called "unconventional" shale gas development using hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," which injects millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand thousands of feet underground to break up shale formations and release the gas and oil they hold.

In Canada, such a full investigative study is underway by the Council of Canadian Academies, with policy recommendations expected in December.

Mr. Stern said a limited set of risks is getting attention in the U.S. -- the Environmental Protection Agency has been actively monitoring water issues, for example.

But other issues -- such as air quality, public health, climate change, and the "safety culture" of the drilling industry -- have not been adequately studied.

Bernard Goldstein, emeritus professor and dean at the University of Pittsburgh's Graduate School of Public Health, said there's a lot that's unknown about the impact of shale gas development activities on public health, and Pennsylvania's failure to allocate any funding to study health impacts from the $180 million a year in impact fees it collected from gas drillers doesn't help.

"Seventeen state agencies, departments and commissions got impact fee funds but not a penny went to the state Department of Health," said Dr. Goldstein, who is scheduled to moderate a NAS committee panel Friday morning on community health risks. "That's part of the industry's transparency issue."

"I may not have proof that shale gas development is causing health problems, but there's a lot of people out there who have gotten unhealthy and are absolutely sure drilling is the cause. We need to find out what is really happening," he said.

A second NAS workshop on "risk governance" -- the capacity and inclination of federal and state governments, local municipalities and the industry itself to identify, address and control risks -- is scheduled for August.

"Right now we have a patchwork governance system," Mr. Stern said. "And the question is, what can we expect from that?"


Correction, posted May 23, 2013: The dates on which the workshop will have held have been corrected.

nation - marcellusshale - science

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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