Fracking ‘bad for babies’ claim could fuel fight over shale

New research from Colorado links gas drilling to birth defects as focus grows on industry in USA and Europe

(Pic: Nexen/Flickr)

(Pic: Nexen/Flickr)

By John McGarrity

Fracking for shale gas could harm the health of newborn babies and increase birth defects, according to studies from US academics, potentially fuelling the impassioned debate on how to regulate the booming industry for unconventional oil and gas. 

Research presented at the weekend to a congress of American academics found that proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half.

A separate study published last week of waste water near shale drilling sites in Colorado found substances that have been linked to infertility, birth defects and cancer.

“With fracking on the rise, populations may face greater health risks from increased endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure,” said Susan Nagel co-author of the Colorado study in the LA Times last month.

A blog on news agency Bloomberg’s website referenced a separate unpublished report on fracking and human health by Ivy League researchers to the American Economic Association this weekend, hasn’t yet been peer-reviewed and is likely to be contested by oil and gas producers.

EPA focus

But it comes as state and federal policymakers grapple with how to regulate the shale gas industry, that has created hundreds of thousands of new jobs, lowered energy prices and made the US the world’s largest producer of hydrocarbons.

Reuters reported today that a recently-published report by the US government’s environmental watchdog on previous cases of water contamination has brought back into focus concerns about the effects of fracking on water quality.

However the federal government is seen by analysts as unlikely to take tougher action, meaning regulation of the shale industry will remain the responsibility of individual states that have a mixed record in tracking complaints about pollution from fracking.

Monday’s report by the Associated Press said Texas provided the most detail on confirmed problems related to oil and gas drilling, while the other states provided only general outlines.

While AP acknowledged that the complaints are only a tiny portion of the thousands of oil and gas wells drilled each year, the lack of detail provided by some states could heighten public confusion and mistrust about the shale industry, which enjoys strong backing by federal and state governments.

A newly-proposed amendment to Colorado’s constitution could give municipalities the power to ban or curb drilling, rather than state governments, would be the first of its kind in the USA if it passes a vote late this year.

Lord Browne: fracking will not bring down energy bills

Supporters and opponents of fracking in Europe look closely at North America’s experience of drilling for shale gas, and concerns that water contamination could be more widespread and harmful than previously thought are likely to be seized upon by green campaigners.

Last month the EU decided against new regulations on fracking, meaning individual member states such as the UK can push ahead with ambitious plans to exploit unconventional oil and gas without having to conform to laws made in Brussels.

Supporters of fracking claim the widespread exploitation of unconventional gas reserves in Europe could improve energy security, lower prices and prompt a move away from highly-polluting coal, and that concerns about pollution are based on flimsy scientific evidence.

But opponents say incidents in the US show that drilling shale will contaminate air, soil and water, claiming further that development of Europe’s shale deposits would further lock in the use of climate-changing fossil fuels.

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