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Fracking Health Impact Assessments

Fracking Health Impact Assessments

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Need for health impact assessments in shale gas industrializations
Need for health impact assessments in shale gas industrializations

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Published by: James "Chip" Northrup on Sep 10, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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This memo provides background information and recommendations regardinghow best to protect the health of New York State (NYS) residents against the harmfuleffects of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” With energy developers poised to exploitthe large reserves of natural gas contained in the Marcellus shale formation under NYS,many important policy questions must be addressed by the New York State Departmentof Environmental Conservation (NYSDOC), Department of Health (NYSDOH), andother executive and legislative bodies in NYS. The recently-developed technology usedto unlock these resources poses risks to human health in a number of ways, most notablythrough contamination of ground and subsurface water supplies and the release of air  pollutants, as has been observed in states where fracking has been active for severalyears. The recently-released draft regulations by the NYSDEC are a strong step towards protecting New York’s water resources, but do little to address the many serious potentialhealth effects of fracking. The Senator’s call for legislative actionto regulate fracking is both timely and essential for protecting the health of NYS residents in the short and longterm. The specific steps the Senator has proposed addresses several dangerous gaps incurrent regulation, including the lack of systematic monitoring of soil and water qualityand medical remediation for individuals affected by fracking, and are a welcomedaddition to the proposed NYSDEC regulations. This memo will provide some background information on the fracking process, an overview of the legal and policylandscape of fracking in NYS, and two case studies from states where fracking has beenactive for several years to illustrate the types of health and environmental problems thatcan be expected to emerge if stronger regulation is not adopted in NYS. This analysiswill conclude with a recommendation that a health impact assessment (HIA) beundertaken in addition to the Senator’s other regulatory proposals in order to ensure thathealth impacts are continuously evaluated as fracking development moves forward in NYS.
Fracking Technology and History:
The technology behind fracking involves both established and recenttechnological developments. At the outset, it is important to address some definitionalissues. In this memo, “fracking” is used to refer to a method of natural gas extraction that
About the author: Benjamin Williams is a recent graduate of the Master of Public Health Program at The George Washington University, with aconcentration in Health Policy. These comments are adapted from athesis written as part of that program. The author may be contacted at:williams@gwmail.gwu.edu
incorporates two key features: 1) the hydraulic fracturing of underground shaleformations usingaspecialized “fracking fluid,” and 2) the use of horizontal well drilling.While this paper uses the term fracking to refer to this extraction process as a whole, inthe following description it is important to distinguish between the separate technical processes of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in order to understand how thistechnologydeveloped and why it has been widely adopted in recent years.The technology of hydraulic fracturing has been used by the oil and gas industrysince 1949 as a means to increase production from oil and gas wells. Although exactnumbers are not available due to the large number of energy developers active, it isestimated that there have been 2.5 million fracture treatments, or “frac jobs,” to date, andthe method is currently used at approximately 60% of all wells drilled today (withmultiple frac jobs performed at each producing well).
The purpose of hydraulicfracturing is to stimulate the release of “tight” oil or gas trapped in subsurface rock formations. After the well has been drilled (in the Marcellus shale, at a depth of 4,000 to8,500 feet), a pipe is inserted and encased in concrete. A perforating gun is then loweredinto the well, and explosives are set off at regular intervals along the pipe to maximizethe number of fractures and interlinkages within the rock.
The hydraulic fracturing process then begins with the injection of a fracking fluid mixture into the wellbore under high pressure. When the fluid reaches the fractures, the oil or gas is agitated andreleased.
In order to keep the fractures open, a compression-resistant substance knownas proppant is injected into the well along with the fracking fluidproper. This processmay be repeated many times at various points along a single well before the oil or gas isallowed to come to the surface. Depending on the size of the well andthe composition of the rock, a single frac job can requireup to five million gallons of fracking fluid,containing over a million pounds of proppants (usually a mixture of sand andchemicals).
A proportion of this mixture is returned to the surface in the form of flowback, sometimes referred to as “produced water,” which consists of the originalfracking fluid and proppant mixture as well as high concentrations of dissolved solidsfrom inside the well. Depending on the siteand methods used, flowback may account for anywhere between 10 to 90 percent of the fluid injected into the well.
While the hydraulic fracturing process has been used to increase the productionfrom oil and gas wells since the late 1940s, the process was not used to access natural gasin shale rock formations until the early 1990s, when the development of new frackingfluid mixtures allowed for the economical extraction of gas from the Barnett shale play inTexas.
Shale gas remained a marginal player in the energy sector until 2003, when the
 The term “play” is used within the industry to refer to different shale formationscontaining a significant amount of natural gas
technique of horizontal drilling was first applied on a large scale to 55 frac jobs in theBarnett shale play.
Horizontal drilling is similar to conventional drilling except that,once in the shale rock, the drilling proceeds horizontally, near-parallel to the surface (seefigure 1). This technique allows a greater area of shale to be fracked from a singlewellhead, greatly decreasing both the cost to yield ratio as well as the surface footprint of the wellpads, leading to a 2.5 to 7-fold increase in therate of production compared totraditional gas wells.
The result of these developments has been a 14-fold increase indomestic shale gas production from 2000 to 2010, which as of 2009 provided 14 percentof all natural gas consumed in the U.S., with natural gas making up 25 percent of totalU.S. energy consumption, or 21.0 trillion cubic feet (tcf).
Figure 1: Natural gas production with horizontal drilling from the Marcellus Shale formation.
The distribution of shale gas plays determines where fracking can take place (seefigure 2). The Barnett shale formation in Texas is the longest-running and most productiveof shale gas plays, producing 1.9 tcf of natural gas in 2010 –roughly 6% of total U.S. production –from some 15,400 wells.
Developments in the Marcellus shale, principally in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, produced an additional 180 billion cubicfeet (bcf) of natural gas from July, 2009 to July, 2010. The Marcellus shale formation is

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