The Rush to Drill for Natural Gas: A Public Health Cautionary Tale
Michaela Sweeney ’14
On Monday, April 2, Dr. Madelon Lubin Finkel joined the Eisenhower Institute at Gettysburg College to lecture about her epidemiological research on the correlation between hydraulic fracturing and human health issues. Dr. Finkel is a professor of epidemiology and a researcher at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. Recently, she has been conducting research in communities that have been affected by hydraulic fracturing (also known as “hydrofracking” or “fracking”) processes.
Hydraulic fracturing is an unconventional method of extracting natural gas from underground shale. Specialized equipment is used to drill a deep well into the ground, which then proceeds to crosscut horizontally into the bedrock. A mixture of water, sand, and chemicals, also known as “frack fluid,” is then injected into the well at a high pressure, which fractures the shale and releases the gas from within the rocks. Once the gas is extracted, the frack fluid is pumped back up from the ground and dumped into large ponds. This toxic wastewater is left abandoned, and often ends up seeping into local aquifers, polluting local drinking water.
However, hydrofracking is said to have tremendous benefits for the United States’ economy. According to Dr. Finkel, drilling for natural gas is an ideal means of obtaining energy self-sufficiency, and it reduces the United States’ dependence on foreign oil. Natural gas is a cleaner form of energy than oil—when burned it emits less CO2 into the atmosphere—and is more fuel-efficient. Economically, drilling domestic gas is said to create more jobs, require less capital investment, and follow quick construction timelines.
However, economic benefits come with costs. Waste-disposal, degradation of natural landscapes, and environmental pollution are just a few of the causes of health problems in communities with hydrofracking industries. Of primary concern is water use and contamination. Hydrofracking is an extremely water-intensive process, requiring approximately 5 million gallons of water per well drilled. Once this water is mixed with sands and chemicals (which are not regulated under the Environmental Protection Agency) and is pumped into the ground, it can leak into ground water tables, which are huge sources of clean drinking water. Groundwater also becomes contaminated from dirty water that leaks from frack ponds. In addition to water issues, air quality is also of serious concern. Even though natural gas burns cleanly, green house gases—most notably methane—are still released in the extraction process. Additionally, the transport and storage of natural gas is very energy intensive, and is a key source of harmful emissions that are released into the atmosphere.
Dr. Finkel studies the effects of hydrofracking on human health in shale-rich communities. As an epidemiology researcher, she collectively studies and analyzes human populations in these target areas to see whether there are correlating trends of disease or prevalent health issues. However, Dr. Finkel faces the challenge of pinpointing the direct causes of certain health issues, for not all may be related to fracking. She claims that the hydraulic fracturing industry has not been around long enough to conduct extensive studies, and she finds that drawing conclusions or pointing the blame on the natural gas industry is currently not a viable option. She has studied the health of many counties in the Marcellus Shale region, a geographic area where shale rock is predominant, spanning from western New York down through Pennsylvania. Dr. Finkel’s primary goal is to gain proof that hydrofracking processes are related to serious health repercussions, and to eventually enforce gas companies and the government to be more transparent about the contents of frack fluid. Dr. Finkel is not entirely against fracking, but merely calls for increased regulation and policy changes so that fracking can be executed safely, with minimal harm to human health and the environment.
Overall, Dr. Finkel’s presentation was an inspiring guest-lecture that brought awareness to the many dimensions of hydrofracking—an issue that is especially relevant to the health of Pennsylvania today.