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Scientists ask Obama to hold off on natural gas exports

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A slate of 110 scientists and medical professionals have petitioned the Obama administration to hold off on approving liquefied natural gas export terminals until more is understood about the health effects of high-volume hydraulic fracturing for natural gas from shale.

"The question here is very simple," said Seth Shonkoff, executive director of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy, or PSE, in a conference call about the petition. "Why would the U.S. dramatically increase the use of an energy extraction method without first ensuring that the trade-off is not the health of Americans in exchange for the energy demands of foreign nations?"

The technology of high-volume hydraulic fracturing that has proliferated in this century to extract natural gas from shale has resulted in a gas glut in the U.S.

To further exploit the resource and to take advantage of higher prices in other countries, natural gas producers want permission from the federal government to export gas. As of Dec. 5, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission listed eight proposed terminals for exporting liquefied natural gas, or LNG.

The scientists and medical professionals who signed the petition say it's too soon to go for those overseas markets. They point to what they say is a growing body of evidence that this unconventional natural gas extraction from shale may be associated with adverse health risks through exposure to polluted air, water and soil, the petition asserts.

"Public health researchers and medical professionals question the continuation of current levels of fracking without a full scientific understanding of the health implications," the petition reads. "The opening of LNG export facilities would serve to accelerate fracking in the United States in absence of sound scientific assessment, placing policy before health." 

The construction of a large new infrastructure for export of LNG would dramatically accelerate fracking and place great economic pressure on other areas that are attempting a deliberative process to understand the potential health and environmental downsides to move ahead prematurely, said  Adam Law, M.D., a physician at Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca, N.Y., and a member of PSE.

"Many of those who will be put in harm's way live in medically underserved rural districts and will not benefit directly or indirectly by the creation of a new export market," Law said — in fact, for them, the price of gas will go up and they will be left with the stresses of production in their communities and with the legitimate concern that they will have to pay the price with their own physical health.

While there are many anecdotal repots of minor to serious health effects in areas where drilling is conducted, said Madelon Finkel, professor of clinical public health and director of the Office of Global Health Education at Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, there's a paucity of objective, evidence-based epidemiological research.

"We should not conclude that an absence of data implies that no harm is being done," Finkel said.

Among those on the conference call was former Mobil Oil Corp. Executive Vice President Louis W. Allstadt, who added his concern about the new processes.

"Several years ago friends asked me what I thought about drilling near a local lake, the water source for the village of Cooperstown, N.Y., 150 feet from the lake," Allstadt said.

"The more I read about how New York was going to regulate the process and the more I caught up on how the drilling had changed and what the process entailed, the more concerned I got," he said. "I'm not the only one that's been associated with the industry that has concerns over what's going on and how it's being done. I think it's moved very fast and before people really got a good handle on the technology."

The petition and list of signers may be found at www.psehealthyenergy.org.