Republican Messaging For Energy Hearing: Oversight of Drilling a Problem; Sick Constituents Not So Much

By Tom Kenworthy, Center for American Progress senior fellow.

Another day, another bogus House GOP hearing on how “excessive” regulation of the energy industry is killing jobs and hurting consumers. Today’s is in Grand Junction, Colorado, and features the chairman of the House Small Business Committee’s subcommittee on agriculture, energy and trade, Rep. Scott Tipton (R-CO). Among other subjects Tipton is scheduled to look into are the perils of government regulation of hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells and how the Department of Interior energy permitting process is working.

But if Tipton was really concerned about his Colorado constituents and their relation to the energy industry, he’d be holding a hearing based on a new investigative report by the non-profit journalism organization ProPublica, called “Science Lags as Health Problems Emerge Near Gas Fields.” For three years, ProPublica has been conducting extensive reporting on the U.S. natural gas boom and the widely used practice of hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

The latest report focuses on widespread health problems reported by people living in communities that have been home to extensive natural gas exploration and production activities and how neither the federal government nor the states have done any serious investigations of the health impacts of drilling.

As the report concludes:

Hydraulic fracturing, along with other processes used to drill wells, generates emissions and millions of gallons of hazardous waste that are dumped into open-air pits. The pits have been shown to leak into groundwater and also give off chemical emissions as the fluids evaporate. Residents’ most common complaints are respiratory infections, headaches, neurological impairment, nausea and skin rashes. More rarely, they have reported more serious effects, from miscarriages and tumors to benzene poisoning and cancer.

ProPublica examined government environmental reports and private lawsuits and interviewed scores of residents, physicians and toxicologists in four states—Colorado, Texas, Wyoming and Pennsylvania—that are drilling hot spots. Our review showed that cases …go back a decade in parts of Colorado and Wyoming, where drilling has taken place for years. They are just beginning to emerge in Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus Shale drilling boom began in earnest in 2008.

Among the cases looked into by ProPublica was that of Susan Wallace-Babb, whose ranch in western Colorado was close to a natural gas well and storage tanks holding liquid hydrocarbons. Fumes made her sick, according to Wallace-Babb, including rashes and lesions, and she eventually started wearing a respirator and swim goggles when she went outside her house to attend to her farm animals.

In another case, investigators from the Environmental Protection Agency found benzene and other hydrocarbons in domestic water wells in Pavillion, Wyoming as well as “an unusual chemical variant of a compound used in hydraulic fracturing.” A health survey conducted by an environmental group found that “94 percent of respondents complained of health issues they thought were new or connected to the drilling, and 81 percent reported respiratory troubles.” As ProPublica reported:

“In some communities it has been a disaster,” said Christopher Portier, director of the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) and the National Center for Environmental Health. “We do not have enough information on hand to be able to draw good solid conclusions about whether this is a public health risk as a whole.

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