Why doctors should care about fracking

Let’s all agree on two things.

First, that energy independence is good for our country. Second that clean drinking water is also good for the country.

The development of America’s huge stores of natural gas, have given us a remarkable opportunity to accomplish the former. In particular, the process of “fracking” has made it possible to increasingly tap those huge natural gas stores.  Natural gas sits in rock formations, but releasing it is much more complicated than simply drilling a well and pumping it out. In order to tap the gas, it first has to be liberated from its rocky confines, after which it takes the path of least resistance, in this case is up a gas well. The technique of releasing natural gas from rock  formations is known of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

The process involves drilling down thousands of feet to create a well. Huge quantities of water, often a million gallons or more, are forced into the well. This opens fractures in the rock and allows the natural gas to escape. The water that was pumped into the well is a proprietary mixture that contains various agents which are potentially hazardous to humans. Only a fraction of the fluid is recovered, much of it stays in the well and is dispersed into the depths, (hopefully) never to be seen again.

The process of fracking has huge potential and not only for the drillers. As anyone who has paid close attention to their gas bill has seen, the glut of natural gas has lead a drop in gas prices, and this comes at a time when we could all use a break on fuel prices. The fact that it’s homegrown means that there are no foreign entanglements, it creates domestic jobs and reduces trading deficits. Natural gas even burns cleaner with less CO2 than gasoline. It’s a veritable win-win for the entire country. The tremendous upside of this cheap, cleaner,  home-grown energy source has lead to a boom in the industry, with thousands of wells sprouting up across the country, most use the the process of fracking.

But the rush to cure America’s energy woes has been well, rushed. One has only to look at the results of our attempts to harvest corn ethanol as an energy source to see the law of unintended consequences in effect. In a climate where a modicum of caution would be wise, both the government and the industry has proceeded with what can only be thought of as reckless abandon, summarily sweeping aside questions of safety and health concerns. This was typified in  2005 when the federal government passed what is known as the “halliburton loophole” wherein frackers are exempt from significant EPA regulation.

And that’s where we physicians come in. In the rush to create a business friendly environment for drillers, state governments have generally laid out the red carpet. This includes passing laws to protect  proprietary information about the content of fluids being pumped into gas wells during the fracking process. In many states, if a physician suspects water contamination, they may request to know the materials, but must sign a confidentiality agreement thus effectively barring them from disclosing this information to others.

Imagine being the physician in Dallas who saw patients who were exposed to fracking fluid, one of whom developed renal failure. Or the dermatologist in Pennsylvania seeing a cluster of people living near a well who presented with non-healing skin lesions after their water was contaminated. In such a situation it would be paramount for a physician to share this information with other physicians, to discuss the case with other consultants, to inform the public about potential threats. The medical community would need to disperse this information both through word of mouth as well as through published literature. Forcing physicians to sign confidentiality agreements would likely limit the transmission of such information. Even if such communication were technically legal, the confusion and fear created by such laws would make many uncertain about whether they could disclose such information.

I do believe that state governments are trying to do the right thing, in facilitating the procurement of what appears to be a cheap, abundant, domestic energy source and increasing their tax base at a time when it is sorely needed. However, it should be pointed out that government is first responsible to the people they serve. The process of fracking is being looked at with increasing scrutiny by the public as cases of contamination by fracking fluid and natural gas come to light in greater numbers. The current approach only fosters an environment of fear and suspicion and heightens the perception that drillers do not take the public welfare into account.

If the scientific community was allowed greater access to information, the causative agents could be identified, and potentially replaced. Such an approach could be beneficial for drillers. There are indeed historical precedents for this type of relationship. The study of lead, and freon and their subsequent removal from gasoline and refrigeration has benefitted society, yet both of those industries continue to flourish today. In addition, drilling companies with poor track records could be weeded out and replaced by companies with better techniques. This process is the American way. It is taking place as we speak in a number of different fields including the medical community, and the drilling community should be no different.

Deep Ramachandran is a pulmonary and critical care physician who blogs at CaduceusBlog.

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  • http://twitter.com/Meryl333 Meryl at Beanstalk

    Good for you Kevin. Doing the right thing? What makes something right? As a country, are not asking those questions with the humanity and depth that is required. We are destroying our land, water and resources for the pecuniary profit of a few. I used the word “pecuniary” because we are not profiting our country with joy of community engagement, Love and fine character that is the greatest contributor to happiness and meaning in life. What a waste.

  • http://twitter.com/InpatientMed InpatientMed

    A fair piece on the whole, I would say, if not a bit breathless. As noted, the Halliburton loophole happened more than seven years ago. Since that time Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Texas and other states have had millions of wells drilled and to date there is not a single case of fracking fluids contaminating fresh water aquifers.

    And while there is much anecdotal “evidence” polluting the inter webs on the adverse health effects of fracking and natural gas, there is little evidence available to support such conjecture. The referenced would be dermatologist (plastic surgeon) may be a notable exception, but as we all know, anecdotes are just that, and correlation does not equal causation.

    In New York, where I practice there is much ado amongst my medical colleagues regarding the would be medical ills pertaining to fracking, but with all the letters to Governor Cuomo there is never any data to support the allegations. Only conjecture and hyperbole, the stuff that physicians generally frown upon. The truth of the matter is hydraulic fracturing and the dramatic increase and abundance of natural gas has made us healthier. I don’t have the numbers on hand but by all accounts coal fired generators are closing up and down the east coast and are being replaced by much cleaner natural gas. This may come as a shock to many, but coal is one dirty energy source and has been clearly linked to many health ailments. One only need check with the EPA to find the the number of deaths directly attributable to coal is much, much higher than that natural gas to concede this is so.

    So there it is. I believe the medical community is being terrible myopic when addressing the hydrofracking issue. One could make the argument that fracking is good for us, but that would require that we check our emotions and politics at the door.