Friday, October 8, 2010

Health issues and natural gas drilling: Should we be concerned?

When my family moved to the sleepy, bedroom community of Flower Mound, Texas back in 1992, we never dreamed that we would be in the position we find ourselves in now. Flash forward 20 years and Flower Mound isn't so sleepy anymore. It has grown to a suburb of over 60,000 residents. The town was even recognized as a Gold Scenic City this year. The title is awarded by Scenic Texas, an organization that states, "we believe that growth is inevitable, but ugliness is not."

Perhaps you'll appreciate the irony of this statement when I tell you that it turns out my scenic suburban town sits on the Barnett Shale, a large shale natural gas deposit, and they are drilling in Flower Mound. The town is actually allowing around 24 gas wells to be put in the middle of suburbia. Drilling in the area isn't a new occurrence.  Over the last few years drill sites have popped up throughout the area.  However, the two dozen wells being drilled now at the Hilliard site will be less than 1500 feet from subdivisions, an elementary school, a middle school and there is a church nearby.  You can see the density of the area, as well as the proximity of the site to the schools and neighborhoods here, How is this not ugly?

Now, before I go any further, I acknowledge that I'm a natural gas consumer. I also know that natural gas is a cleaner source of energy than coal, albeit not as clean as solar, wind or other renewable energy sources. Also, in light of the recent oil drilling disaster in the gulf, it's probably a whole lot safer to extract gas than oil, right? Well, no, not really. Not the way it's being done right now and definitely not so close to schools, a church and densely populated subdivisions. Since horizontal gas drilling technology has become available, many environmental and health issues have come to light.

At this point you might be tempted to stop reading and call me "Chicken Little". Please consider that the quality of the air we breathe and the water we drink is at risk. We are all potentially affected by this situation, even if we don't live near an area where gas drilling is likely to occur. The risk to our health is the result of pollutants that are generated from the drilling and extraction process. As the map at left clearly shows, shale gas is located throughout the US and it is going to be extracted. It's also becoming a reality in Europe and other parts of the world where shale gas deposits are being found.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), "...natural gas production facilities emit pollutants such as hazardous air pollutants (HAP's) and volatile organic compounds (VOC's). These pollutants can contribute to health problems..." "While regulations limit the amount of emissions [from these facilities], dangerous releases of HAP's can occur if [a facility] does not operate in compliance with regulations." Even though there are federal, state and local regulations in place that attempt to protect us from dangerous HAP's and VOC's, evidently the accidental and/or intentional release of dangerous pollutants into the environment is a very real consequence of gas drilling.

The issue of our ground water becoming contaminated is documented. In 2005, the oil and gas industry was granted an exemption from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which is in place to protect our drinking water supply. Earthworks Action states that, "at the state level, most oil and gas agencies do not require companies to report the volumes or names of chemicals being injected during [the gas drilling process]. Thus, neither the government nor the public can evaluate the risks posed by injecting these fluids underground..."  This is a result of the something called the Halliburton Loophole. Yep, you might recognize that name, especially if you're from Texas. Halliburton patented the hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" method used to help extract the natural gas. The exemption is believed to have resulted from Dick Cheney who was Vice President at the time and also happened to be the CEO of Halliburton.

Noteworthy are the public health agencies who have attempted to gather data about the health effects experienced by people living near gas drilling sites. One of these is Garfield County, Colorado's department of public health  which took on the task of assessing the health impacts relating to gas drilling that are affecting the people living in their area.  The following charts from their study illustrate some of their findings (click on charts to enlarge):


Clearly, health and environmental concerns are continually being raised with regard to shale gas drilling. Recent legislation has been passed by Congress that orders the EPA to study the chemicals used in the natural gas extraction process. Amazingly, many of the chemicals used in the fracking process have not been disclosed by companies because they consider them trade secrets.  As of the end of September, the EPA was holding hearings and had requested nine drilling companies to release information about the chemicals they use. A report should be completed by 2012. Although I'm hopeful that the EPA is working to protect our environment and our health, this is the same agency that previously filed a flawed report on fracking. The flaws were revealed by an EPA insider named Weston Wilson. Thankfully, he blew the whistle by writing a letter to congress about the risks he believes this process poses to drinking water.

The risk doesn't end with the HAP's and VOC's entering our air and water and potentially jeopardizing our health. Just consider the Gulf oil spill.  Wasn't that rig's blow out preventer supposed to be fail safe? Haven't we learned from the catastrophic gas well  "accidents" that have occurred in Virginia, Louisiana and Pennsylvania? These are only a handful of the disasters that have happened since gas drilling has accelerated. I don't even want to think about the possibility of an event occurring 1200 feet from an elementary and middle school.

It's a sad reality that our government officials are strongly influenced by lobbyists representing big business interests, and the oil and gas industry ranks up there with some of the most powerful. However, call me naive, but I believe that as their constituents we do exert some influence ourselves. With that thought in mind, if you're wondering like I was what actions we might take to protect our air, our water and our health, I suggest the following:
  1. We can let our government officials know that we want our water protected.  Contact them and ask them to support the FRAC Act here. 
  2. For concerns about air quality, if you live in Texas you can contact the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), or contact your state and local elected officials and urge them to consider stronger regulation of toxic gases and VOC's that threaten our environment and our health.
As things stand, I feel the environment and our health are losing out to our ever increasing demand for energy resources. It's an ugly situation and I'm afraid it isn't going to get any better. That is... unless changes in the way we live occur and our focus shifts to cleaner more renewable energy sources. Unfortunately, the reality now is that shale gas wells will continue to pop up all over. Until the process of extracting the shale gas is mandated to adhere to best practice methods, the chemicals used in the process and their effects on our environment and our health are required to be openly disclosed, and the gas drilling companies are held more strictly accountable for accidents, I believe we need to proceed with caution. So, yes, I think we should be very concerned.

Update 10/10: I wanted to learn more about the natural gas drilling process. This educational video made by the Penn State Cooperative Extension, shows a natural gas well operation site. What I know about gas drilling could fill a thimble, so I submit my comments about the video mostly from the observational perspective.  What I notice:  1) the noise; 2) the amount of heavy equipment 3) the number of box cars for hauling water, chemicals, sand, etc? 4) site access roads. If we all work together to shift toward cleaner energy sources, perhaps your neighborhood can be spared all this "inconvenience."

Town of Flower Mound


  1. I recognize the total disregard for the "few" that must suffer at the hands of the "select" to make serious profits by serving the "many". I just don't understand how 1 guy (Hilliard) can make a pact and put all of his townspeople at risk. Why do the wells and drilling need to be right in the midst of 60,000 people? Because Hilliard made it easy (and profitable) to sell out!

  2. Thanks for sharing that news. Health should be the number one priority of the government.