Will the real data please stand up?


Facing a comprehensive federal investigation on the health and environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing of gas wells, some natural gas advocates seem resistant to finding any answers at all.

In preparation for its much-anticipated study this summer the Environmental Protection Agency is holding public hearings around the country, asking citizens to help determine the study's goals.  The first two hearings, in Fort Worth and Denver, have already proven contentious, eliciting boos and cheers from people on both sides of the debate.

Hydraulic fracturing (aka "fracking") is a process in which millions of gallons of water, sand and sundry chemicals are pumped at high pressure into a natural gas well to crack rock formations and release trapped gas. Now used in 90 percent of gas wells in the U.S., fracking has opened up previously unviable natural gas deposits to drilling, just as natural gas has been lauded as a cleaner fossil fuel alternative.

Angie Burckhalter, an Independent Petroleum Association of America rep, called fracking "a safe, proven technology that has been used over one million times for 60 years." But Las Animas County resident Tracy Dahl, like dozens of Westerners from Wyoming to New Mexico, says that fracking operations have polluted his drinking water. "Whether we can prove it or not is another matter," said the renewable energy specialist.

Determined safe by the EPA in 2004, fracking's reputation has since been tarnished. Community groups blame chemicals used in fracking for contaminating ground water – the accusation is echoed in the HBO film "Gasland," which has made quite a stir since its release in June.

Meanwhile, preliminary EPA investigations of drinking water in areas of high fracking activity have found quantities of chemicals suspected to have leached from gas wells, such as methane and 2-BE, or 2-butoxyethanol, a substance that may cause kidney and liver damage.

Other substances known to be in fracking solutions include BTEX chemicals, also found in diesel, according to the Environmental Working Group. Long-term exposure to BTEX chemicals can cause a wide range of health problems, from respiratory illness to nervous system damage to various forms of cancer.

Fracking is currently unregulated by the EPA, and oil and gas companies are not required to disclose the chemicals used in the process. As recently as March this year, public enemy number one, BP, was lobbying for no federal regulation of fracking and no disclosure of the chemicals involved.

Two more EPA fracking hearings will be held in Canonsburg, Pa., and Binghamton, N.Y. Results from the EPA study are expected by the end of 2012.

When the purpose is to better understand the potential health impacts of fracking and fracking advocates insist a study isn't even needed, the question arises, why fear the truth? The EPA hearings are designed to prepare for a study after all, not determine fracking's health effects by comparing the relative loudness of its opponents and proponents. With fracking advocates making assertions of fact before the study has even begun, one wonders how committed they are to a thorough and rigorous scientific examination. A quotation from one of our founding fathers' favorite proto-pundits, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, comes to mind: "Whoever blushes is already guilty; true innocence is ashamed of nothing."

For its part, America's Natural Gas Alliance has promised to be a good-faith participant in the EPA study, saying in a statement, "We are confident that a scientifically sound and data-driven examination will provide policymakers and the public with even greater reassurance of the safety of this longstanding practice."

A welcome departure from blatant attempts at obfuscation. Jean-Jacques would be proud.

Denver Nicks is an HCN intern. Adam Petry, also an HCN intern, contributed to this post.