Finding a balance

It may yet be decades before any definitive statement can be made by the scientific or health care communities about the long-term effects of deep shale natural gas production.

That non-definitive statement can be backed up by the first release of preliminary numbers about people in Washington County who live in fairly close proximity to new natural gas wells and gas processing facilities who believe their health has been adversely affected by the industry.

If those who assume that deep shale natural gas extraction through hydraulic fracturing and the processing of the product is responsible for widespread health problems were looking for evidence to back up their conclusion they were disappointed.

Likewise, if those representing the industry who contend that no problems exist were looking for a slam-dunk, they were also disappointed.

Yes, according to the study released by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, researchers have found an “array of symptoms” in some people who live close to either wells or processing stations. Just how widespread or serious the symptoms are is debatable, and we’re sure the debate will be just as bracing as the arguments by both sides prior to the study.

Perhaps the most telling analysis of the preliminary results comes from Michael Greenstone, a professor of environmental economics at the massachusetts Institute of Technology, who maintains that the general health of the nation is better for the natural gas boom. That’s because many power plants have stopped burning coal and switched to natural gas for two important reasons: It burns far cleaner, making it easier for them to meet emission standards; and, the boom has brought down the cost of gas, making it competitive with coal.

It is also clear that the industry has improved its production techniques since the early days of the boom when it was fairly common to read about serious well blow-outs, explosions and accidental fluid discharges.

Still, we can predict with some confidence that the debate over “fracking” will continue for a long time to come.

Energy production has always come with environmental and public health costs in the form of acid mine drainage, nuclear accidents, powerline electromagnetic emissions, smog and depletion of the ozone layer. We are even told of the hazards of wind farms.

The key in all of these situations is balance, deciding whether the risks are worth the benefits. And, if you ask a hundred people their perspective on that balance, you are likely to get nearly a hundred different opinions.