Doctors can help make fracking safer, if states lift gag orders on them

Many doctors are uneasy about all the forced secrecy around fracking.
Many doctors are uneasy about all the forced secrecy around fracking.
Image: AP Photo/Mike Groll
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Let’s all agree on two things:

First, energy independence is good for our country.

And second, clean drinking water is also good for our country.

The development of America’s huge stores of natural gas have given us a remarkable opportunity to accomplish the former. In particular, the process of “fracking” has made it possible to tap increasingly more of our huge natural gas reserves.

But natural gas sits in rock formations, and releasing it is much more complicated than simply drilling a well and pumping it out. In order to tap the gas, it first has to be liberated from its rocky confines, after which it takes the path of least resistance, meaning up a gas well. The technique of releasing natural gas from rock formations is known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The process involves drilling thousands of feet down into the earth to create a well, after which, huge quantities of water, often a million gallons or more, are forced into the well. This opens fractures in the rock and allows the natural gas to escape. The water that was pumped into the well is a proprietary mixture that contains various agents— potentially hazardous to humans. Since only a fraction of the fluid is recovered, much of it ends up staying in the well and dispersing into the depths, (hopefully, but not always) never to be seen again.

The process of fracking has huge potential, and not only for drillers. Consumers who have paid close attention to their gas bill lately have surely noticed that the glut of natural gas has lead to a drop in gas prices. And this comes at a time when everyone could use a break on fuel prices. The fact that it’s homegrown means that there are no foreign entanglements—it creates domestic jobs and reduces trading deficits. Natural gas even burns cleaner, and emits less CO2 than does gasoline. The tremendous upside of this cheap, clean, home-grown energy source has lead to a boom in the industry. Thousands of wells are sprouting up across the country, and most are using the the process of fracking.

But the rush to cure America’s energy woes has been, well, rushed. One has only to look at the results of our attempts to harvest corn ethanol as an energy source to see the law of unintended consequences in effect. In a climate where even a modicum of caution would be wise, both the government and the industry have proceeded with what can only be thought of as reckless abandon, summarily sweeping aside questions of safety and health concerns. This was typified in 2005, when the federal government passed what is known as the “Halliburton loophole,” wherein frackers are exempt from significant Environmental Protection Agency regulation. And that’s where we physicians come in.

In the rush to create a business-friendly environment for drillers, state governments have laid out the red carpet by passing laws to protect proprietary information about the content of fluids being pumped into gas wells during the fracking process. In many states, if physicians suspect water contamination, they may request to know the materials, but must first sign a confidentiality agreement and thus effectively bar themselves from disclosing any of this potentially very important information to others. Imagine being the physician in Dallas whose patient was exposed to fracking fluid and developed renal failure, or the dermatologist in Pennsylvania whose patients live near a well and contracted non-healing skin lesions after their water was contaminated. In such a situation, it would be extremely wise to exchange information with other physicians, discuss cases with other consultants, and inform the public of potential threats. The medical community needs to disperse this kind of information through word of mouth and published literature. Forcing physicians to sign confidentiality agreements limits the transmission of such information. Even if such communication were technically legal, the confusion and fear created by such laws makes many uncertain about whether or not they are allowed to disclose such information.

I do believe that state governments are trying to do the right thing by facilitating the procurement of what appears to be a cheap, abundant, and domestic energy source, and increasing their tax base at a time when it is sorely needed. However, it should be pointed out that government is first and foremost responsible for the people they serve. The process of fracking is being looked at by the public with increasing scrutiny, as cases of contamination by fracking fluid and natural gas continue to surface. The current approach fosters an environment of fear and suspicion, and heightens the perception that drillers do not take public welfare into account.

If the scientific community was allowed greater access to information, the causative agents could be identified and potentially replaced. And such an approach could prove beneficial for drillers, too. There are indeed historical precedents for this type of relationship. The study of lead and freon led to their subsequent removal from gasoline and refrigeration, and yet both industries adjusted and continue to flourish today. Drilling companies with poor track records should be weeded out and replaced by companies with more responsible techniques. This process is the American way, or at least it should be. It is taking place in a number of different fields, including the medical community, and the drilling community should be treated no differently.