These are polarized times, we’ve been told again and again, and that polarization is plainly evident when it comes to the natural gas industry.
To its proponents, it’s a godsend to a region that has needed a boost and whose economy was originally built on the extraction of raw materials from the earth. To its opponents, it wounds the landscape, befouls the air, delivers profits to a few and causes everything from annoying inconvenience to grievous harm to many.
It seems you either love it or loathe it.
There is a middle ground, though: natural gas burns cleaner than coal and can serve as a bridge fuel as we move toward a future where renewable energy will take a more prominent role. The Marcellus Shale industry is worthy of support if it can extract and process the fuel safely, without damaging the environment or hurting residents who live near drilling sites. But anyone who has seen headlines about mishaps related to hydraulic fracturing or has read “Amity and Prosperity,” Eliza Griswold’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the impact of the industry on Washington County families, has valid reasons to be concerned. They are not engaged in hysterical overreaction.
That’s why the announcement Nov. 22 that Pennsylvania is investing $3 million in studying the health impact of the natural gas industry is so welcome and, indeed, so necessary.
While it’s unlikely to be the definitive word on fracking, and there are certain to be detractors who will recoil at the findings no matter what researchers uncover, it should help ease some minds in the near term. The two separate studies were prompted due to a spate of rare cancers that have turned up in children and young adults in the areas outside Pittsburgh where fracking has occurred. That includes a half-dozen cases of Ewing sarcoma, a cancer that grows in bones, in the Canon-McMillan School District. No evidence has surfaced that Ewing sarcoma is linked to fracking, and state health officials determined that there is not a cancer cluster around Canonsburg. Still, a deeper look at the issue is clearly needed. One of the studies will look at that, while another will explore the impact of the drilling on birth outcomes, asthma and other “acute conditions.”
Gov. Tom Wolf said, “This investment will advance science by building upon previous research and investigating the concern that there is a relationship between hydraulic fracturing and childhood cancers. I believe this is a responsible way for the commonwealth to undertake additional research in this area.”
Organizations that advocate for the industry say they also support the studies. In a joint statement, they stated, “The concerns in these communities are shared with our industry. We live here, too, and have no higher priority than protecting and ensuring the health and safety of our communities, especially our kids and grandkids.”
What these studies find will probably not be released for at least three years. But knowing that there will eventually be some answers has to bring reassurance to families worrying about the health of their loved ones, and to residents who live near gas wells.