The great state of Utah unveiled its 10-year energy plan back in 2011 with a heavy tilt toward increasing fossil fuel production, and now it looks like the chickens are coming home to roost. Earlier this week, Rolling Stone dropped a bombshell of an article linking natural gas fracking to miscarriages and infant deaths in the Uinta Basin town of Vernal — and the Uinta Basin happens to be the same area that Utah officials spotlighted for natural gas production when the energy plan was announced.
The Rolling Stone fracking article will probably be dismissed as anecdotal, but it follows up on a Newsweek piece that came out earlier this spring that covered much of the same ground and described the same linkage between fracking and infant mortality, and both articles back up a new study that links low-birth-weight babies to fracking in Pennsylvania.
The Fracking Information Gap
For those of you new to the topic, fracking is short for hydrofracturing, a drilling method that involves shooting vast quantities of chemical brine underground in order to jar natural gas and oil loose from shale formations. It was relatively uncommon until a Bush-era exemption from federal environmental regulations enabled the practice to grow and push into new areas.
Both the Rolling Stone and Newsweek articles draw attention to the fact that drawing a causal connection between fracking and health impacts is difficult if not impossible.
That’s mainly because the aforementioned Bush-era loophole enables the drilling industry to keep key ingredients secret. Investigators are left to reach their conclusions without before-and-after data, and without a complete list of substances involved.
Further stretching the information gap is the difficulty in establishing statistical significance when dealing with a small population, as is the case with Vernal.
The new fracking report from the US Environmental Protection Agency illustrates the dilemma. Due to lack of data, the agency could not reach any firm conclusion about fracking and widespread water quality impacts. It ended up with a “state of the science” report that points out where the information gaps are.
Fracking & Low Birth Weight
However elusive a direct causal connection may be, coincidental evidence about the health impacts of fracking is steadily mounting, and in a newly released fracking study from the University of Pittsburgh, the numbers are significant.
The new Pitt fracking study, titled “Lower Birth Weight Associated with Proximity of Mother’s Home to Gas Wells,” looks at births in the Marcellus Shale region of Pennsylvania.
The authors emphasize that establishing a causal connection is beyond the scope of their study. However, the numbers indicate an urgent need for further investigation.
Pitt points out that before 2007, only 44 fracked natural gas wells were known to be drilled in the Marcellus Shale region. Between 2007 and 2010, the number rose to an astronomical 2,864 wells.
Looking at birth records for 15,451 babies born in three counties, the research team found that mothers living near higher densities of fracked wells were 34% more likely to have babies who were “small for gestational age.”
Two other recent studies show similar results, those being a Cornell University study that linked low birth weight to fracking in Pennsylvania, and another Pennsylvania fracking study combining Princeton, Columbia, and MIT that also found lasting negative health, social, and academic outcomes.
Meanwhile, with Vanity Fair covering water quality impacts and lung cancer risks, and NBC News focusing on lung cancer risks, it looks like fracking impacts are finally beginning to show up on the mainstream media radar.
The 10-Year Strategic Energy Plan Is Missing A Piece
Utah updated its 10-Year Energy Plan last year, and while it pays lip service to the idea of protecting human health and the environment, that message has not been getting down to the field. You can check out the compilation of photos and videos at Uinta Basin — An Unconventional Future to get a visual feel for the impact of oil and gas operations in the Uinta Basin.
So far, industry stakeholders in Utah and elsewhere have been able to dismiss concerns (including earthquake issues) raised by local citizens, environmental groups, and researchers, but the new Rolling Stone article could finally get some traction on the issue.
Adding fuel to the fire, author Paul Solotaroff provides a devastating, boots-on-the-ground description of life in a fracking zone that neatly underscores the urgent message of behavior change outlined in Pope Francis’s new encyclical.
Here’s His Holiness citing Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew:
…For human beings… to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life – these are sins…[for]…to commit a crime against the natural world is a sin against ourselves and a sin against God.
The encyclical has already created a huge stir within the Roman Catholic community and beyond, and if it translates into action, another update may be in store for Utah’s energy plan.
Image (screenshot): Front cover, “Energy & Imperatives: Utah’s 10-Year Strategic Energy Plan” updated 2014, courtesy of energy.utah.gov.
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