The Associated Press has news for the people who live above the shale formations experts say have transformed America's energy terrain: Critics of the gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing are as guilty of hyperbole, or downright dishonesty, as the industry's most ardent defenders.
To wit: Josh Fox, director of the controversial documentary that brought fracking to the fore, Gasland and a follow-up, The Sky Is Pink, claimed that, "In Texas, as throughout the United States, cancer rates fell -- except in one place -- in the Barnett Shale."
But a professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center says the numbers don't back him up. And an epidemiologist with the Texas Cancer Registry says they haven't documented that kind of spike. As the AP report lays out a few other contradictory anecdotes, one gets left with the impression that the people of the shale have no legitimate fears, that they're behaving hysterically, irrationally. That, I think, is unfair.
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Of course it is passionate. Of course it is emotional. How could it be any other way? Because, for them, this is an existential threat. They believe the process is literally killing them. The problem is, there is almost no scientific research with which to convince them otherwise. An exhaustive EPA inquiry into the effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water isn't due for public comment until 2014, seven years into the gas boom. About the actual health effects, science is mostly mum.
The most thorough research so far has come out of a three-year Colorado School of Public Health study that analyzed emissions associated with fracking. It found higher cancer risks among those living nearest gas wells. A top official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said more research is needed. "We do not have enough information to say with certainty whether shale gas drilling poses a threat to public health," said Christopher Portier, director of the CDC's National Center for Environmental Health and Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, in an email to Bloomberg.
Even George Mitchell, the man credited with unlocking the shale through hydraulic fracturing, says more stringent regulation of the industry is needed.
No doubt he's right, but it is in the absence of scientific research that ignorance and misinformation grow like yeast. I've found that when a derrick goes up near someone's house, they'll take their answers wherever they can get them. Unfortunately, there aren't many good ones.