Energy panel sparks discussion on health risks

A showdown on an energy panel in Houston left some in the audience concerned about the industry’s efforts to balance health risks while pursuing the economic benefits of natural gas drilling.

After hearing a presentation on the jobs and potential for lower emissions involved with natural gas production from Peter Robertson, senior vice president of the industry group America’s Natural Gas Alliance, another presenter, Lisa McKenzie of the Colorado School of Public Health, highlighted an array of health risks connected to drilling.

Her presentation, part of the Total Energy USA Conference at George R. Brown Convention Center, raised a series of questions from the audience that put Robertson on the defensive.

“We acknowledge that there are risks inherent in the development of natural gas,” said Robertson, who added that other sources of energy, like coal and even wind and solar have environmental risks too. “It’s important to ensure that you are mitigating those effects to the degree that it’s possible and reasonable to do so.”

He said a fundamental question facing the industry is about balancing risks and benefits: “Are the risks being appropriately managed? And are the benefits worth the risks?”

McKenzie discussed a study of the Colorado community of Battleground Mesa, where drilling brought substantial increases in emissions, noise, traffic and safety risks, she said. All of those factors could contribute to health effects, ranging from respiratory illness related to emissions to higher blood pressure and potential cardiovascular problems caused by the higher stress of environmental impacts, she said.

McKenzie also highlighted a series of trends that were correlated with a spike in drilling activity in the 5,000-person community. While drilling activity rapidly increased in the area and peaked in 2008, before dropping off in 2009, so did the rates of police arrests, sexually transmitted infections and school enrollment, she said.

“The real key here is acknowledging that there are the potential for health effects … and what can you do to minimize those so that you can fully maximize the benefits of natural gas development,” McKenzie said.

She said one approach to reducing risks involves “green completions,” a costly process that drillers can implement to capture emissions and prevent venting of pollutants.

That approach can also benefit companies by allowing them to capture more gas, she said.

Robertson agreed, adding that because of new federal regulations, the beneficial approach would be mandated for new wells.

“The green completions that Lisa mentioned will be required on nearly all wells by a regulation just recently,” Robertson said.