Hospital to Mine Patient Database for Fracking Ills

Bloomburg News
1 May 2012

Geisinger Health System, a nonprofit chain of hospitals in eastern Pennsylvania, plans to use its database of patient records to determine whether natural gas drilling in the Marcellus shale is harming residents.

The hospital system began planning the project last year and started mining hundreds of thousands of medical records in recent weeks, David Carey, the director of Geisinger's Weis Center for Research, said in an interview at a conference in Washington. Carey said Danville-based Geisinger is talking with foundations, the government and the gas industry about contributing money to expand the project.

The Institute of Medicine, advisers to the government on health care, is examining whether the fracking process of extracting natural gas from shale rock poses health risks. Concerns include the potential for water and air pollution, as well as inhalation of sand dust, according to academics and government officials who spoke at a workshop sponsored by the institute this week.

"There's all these concerns about what the health risks are, but we're really limited to anecdotal data," Carey said. The database can contribute "real hard, rigorous scientific data" to the debate, he said.

Fracking releases gas trapped in shale rock by injecting water, sand and chemicals thousands of feet underground. It's used for almost every new natural-gas well drilled in the United States.

"Fundamentally I believe that we can operate tight gas wells safely," said Rob Donnelly, vice president of health at Royal Dutch Shell Plc's Shell Oil Co., in an interview at the conference. He said the company was willing to participate in studies as long as there's "a good, clear question being asked and solid design."

"We're not afraid of science in this space -- far from it," he said.

Fracking has enabled energy companies to access fuel trapped in previously impenetrable shale rock, reversing a decline in gas production. Shell drills in the Marcellus shale, which stretches from New York to Tennessee.

Fracking has been used to drill more than 4,400 wells in Pennsylvania since 2009. Companies spent about $20 billion in Pennsylvania's shale from 2008 to 2010 on leases, drilling rigs and royalties to property owners who leased their mineral rights, according to a July report from Penn State University's College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Natural-gas companies drilling on U.S. land would be permitted to wait until after hydraulic fracturing is completed to disclose what chemicals they used, under a draft rule being considered by the Interior Department. Disclosure "would only be required after the fracturing operation has taken place," according to the draft, obtained by Bloomberg News.

The rule, which also includes standards for well construction, is consistent with guidelines established by the American Petroleum Institute, the largest industry trade group, according to the draft.

The examination by the Institute of Medicine, a branch of the National Academy of Sciences, isn't a formal study and won't result in a report or recommendations to the government.

Donnelly said he wasn't familiar enough with Geisinger's project to say if Shell would be interested in giving support.