NATURAL GAS:

Obama frack panel to weigh link between drilling and health

The leader of the Obama administration's initiative on the safety of shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing has commissioned a review of what information is available about the relationship between shale drilling and health.

"We want to see what data is available on connections between the effects of shale drilling on water, the effects of shale drilling on air and public health," said John Deutch, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and chairman of a Department of Energy advisory panel on natural gas. "That will be a very significant area of our future work."

Deutch said he has asked his colleague, MIT economist Michael Greenstone, to find what information is available and what trends that data might show.

Industry has long claimed that fracturing is perfectly safe and drilling in general is subject to a strict regulatory regime that protects the public and workers. But critics have pointed to numerous spills, blowouts and groundwater contamination, along with findings of significant air pollution from drilling. Many drill-site neighbors have complained of acute health effects, such as difficulty breathing.

Numerous environmental concerns have risen as advances in fracturing technology have opened up gas reserves in more densely populated areas that are less accustomed to petroleum production. But the surge in drilling has also brought jobs and royalty wealth to rural areas with struggling economies.

Deutch's panel, officially the Natural Gas Subcommittee of the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board, last week released its initial report, finding that complaints of environmental problems with drilling are real, that they threaten public support for the boom in drilling and therefore pose a risk to natural gas production, or at least its continued growth (Greenwire, Aug. 11). The subcommittee yesterday submitted its report to the full advisory board in a public teleconference, which is where Deutch mentioned the health review.

In a public comment period before yesterday's presentation, a major oil and gas industry group said Deutch's panel should have given more weight to the sufficiency of existing regulations and the industry's effort to improve its practices.

"It would be good to see the subcommittee make recognition of the strong state regulatory system," said Erik Milito, upstream director at the American Petroleum Institute.

Greenstone, an economics professor, was the chief economist for President Obama's Council of Economic Advisors in the first year of his term and has served on the EPA Science Advisory Board's Environmental Economics Advisory Committee.

Greenstone's research has focused on human health and the environment, in particular estimating the costs and benefits of environmental quality. According to his MIT Web page, he examined the Clean Air Act's effect on air quality, manufacturing activity, housing prices and infant mortality to assess its costs and benefits. He is currently engaged in a large-scale project to estimate the economic costs of climate change.