Natural gas well being drilled near Pittsburgh

Natural gas well being drilled near Pittsburgh (Doug Kapustin / August 23, 2005)

A top federal scientist says more research is needed into possible health and environmental effects from shale gas drilling.

Dr. Christopher Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental Health, said in an email to the Associated Press that studies to date have failed to settle questions about the potential impact of shale gas drilling and the hydraulic fracturing technique being used to extract the gas.

“Studies should include all the ways people can be exposed, such as through air, water, soil, plants and animals,” Portier said in the email.  His center is part of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

While federal and state officials are looking into whether shale gas drilling may be polluting air and surface or ground water, Portier said researchers need to look at indirect pathways to human exposure.  He recommended studying “livestock on farmed lands consuming potentially impacted surface waters" and "recreational fish (caught and eaten) from potentially impacted surface waters.”

"Fracking," as the shale gas drilling technique is commonly called, has generated intense debate, with environmentalists and some residents in states where drilling is taking place complaining the drilling fluids and methods used are fouling water, killing animals and threatening people's health.  The gas industry and officials in states that have permitted 'fracking say thousands of wells have been drilled nationwide using the 'fracking process and there have been no documented instances of well contamination.  The Environmental Protection Agency recently reported preliminary findings of 'fracking chemicals in test wells around a drilling site in Wyoming, though industry and state officials have questioned it.

Maryland has put a three-year hold on drilling for gas in the Marcellus shale deposits underlying Garrett and Allegany counties while officials study potential impacts and possible regulations to permit safe extraction.