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Understanding Fracking: Arguments for and Against Natural Gas Extraction

Fracking for natural gas has become a hotly debated issue across the United States, as industry leaders highlight the benefits the practice holds and health and environmental groups question its safety.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of breaking up shale underneath the Earth's surface to extract natural gas supplies. A series of holes are drilled into the ground, which are then pumped with a water/chemical mixture to create a pressure that forces the natural gas out of fissures in the shale into previously-built wells for extraction.

Leaders in the gas industry tout the benefits of natural gas over other energy sources, such as coal, for its ability to burn cleaner. The increase in the natural gas industry has also had a positive role in economic growth.

According to the studies "U.S. Supply Forecast and Potential Jobs and Economic Impacts" by Wood Mackenzie and "The Economic and Employment Contributions of Shale Gas in the United States" by IHS Global Insight, 9.2 million jobs are supported by the oil and gas industries. In ten years, a million new jobs in the field could be created, according to the studies.

Despite the arguable benefits of fracking, some public health officials, environmentalists and scientists are not convinced that it is worth the potential risks. Many groups are concerned over the lack of long-term research into the effects the chemicals used in hydraulic fracking have on the people and environment around it, as well as some grey areas in industry regulation.

Some environmental regulations have exceptions that fracking practices do not have to follow. The Clean Water Act, for example, excludes the permits required for stormwater discharge from oil and gas construction activities that other companies have to abide by. The Safe Drinking Water Act regulates the injection of materials into the ground, but excludes those related to hydraulic fracking, so long as diesel fuel is not used.

Even those in the industry acknowledge the lack of regulation. According to the website what-is-fracking.com, a site run by the Energy From Shale group, "...state and federal lawmakers are working to establish a system of rules to regulate the drilling, and most gas and oil companies have said maintaining the environment and preventing leaks are paramount concerns for them as well."

Those in the public health sector are worried about the untested long-term results on residents who live near fracking sites due to potential for the fracking chemicals to create air or water pollution.

"It's essentially an experiment," Michael Kelly, media liaison for the Southwestern Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SWPA-EHP) said. "There are so many unknowns about this that we're creating a mass health experiment, and it's being conducted without the consent of the people who are most likely to be hurt by it."

The SWPA-EHP conducted a study on people in Washington County, Pa., near a Marcellus Shale fracking site, who may be suffering from radiation related to fracking. Twenty-seven people displayed symptoms of radiation poisoning, including rashes and irritations, after fracking began on the Marcellus Shale in western Pennsylvania. Though the number may seem small, Kelly explained that in a medical case series only candidates who fall under very specific criteria, such as opportunities for exposure and timing of symptoms since the drilling began, are considered to be part of the group. This is to prevent numerous unrelated patients from being part of the study.

He gave the example of when West Nile Virus was first found in New York City. It only took five people in a case series for it to be considered a problem. So Kelly considers the 27 people in one county qualified to be part of this case who "almost certainly suffered from toxic exposure" a cause for concern.

There are also questions for what long term risks may be, as the effects of carcinogens will likely take decades to see effects from. There are 500 chemicals that may be used in fracking, but they are not all present at once or in the same places, so it is hard to asses the impacts in different areas.

"Sometimes you can never perfectly figure out what exactly the cause and effect relationships are, it's just simply too complicated. That said, we've got 27 people all in proximity to unconventional gas development activities, normal activity, not extraordinary spills, nothing extreme, just normal everyday activity, and they're showing toxic reactions," Kelly said.

Research has also been done on the relation between fracking injections and earthquakes. Youngstown, Ohio, which also sits on the Marcelles Shale, had no measurable earthquakes between the time that observation records began in 1776 to 2011. Since the Northstar 1 injection well began in 2010 in nearby Pennsylvania, however, the town has recorded 109 earthquakes.

Adding to the controversy, in 2012, the EPA stated that "inorganic and organic compounds associated with hydraulic fracturing have contaminated the aquifer at or below the depths used for domestic water supply in the Pavillion area," about a study done on water supplies in Pavillion, Wyo., but the study was then abandoned this summer. The EPA has stopped several studies that have investigated in the past two years. A "gag order" on physicians treating patients possibly exposed to fracking chemicals allows them to learn what chemicals their patients may have been exposed to, but forbids them to say what they learn, including to their patients.

This has made it difficult to open up the conversation about the pros and cons of fracking.

Requests for comments to multiple fracking groups for this article were not returned

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