Protecting Humans and Environment During Hydraulic Fracturing Requires an Integrated Effort
Efforts to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of hydraulic fracturing have traditionally been divided along two fronts—those that primarily focus on protecting the environment and wildlife and those that focus on protecting humans and domestic animals. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Efforts to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of hydraulic fracturing have traditionally been divided along two fronts—those that primarily focus on protecting the environment and wildlife and those that focus on protecting humans and domestic animals.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. In a March 30 commentary in Bioscience, a trio of public health experts, ecologists, and environmental scientists urge adoption of a more holistic approach when evaluating the effects of unconventional gas and oil production operations such as hydraulic fracturing. They also lay out a framework for future transdisciplinary collaboration and integrated decision-making, which they say will lead to more just and comprehensive solutions that protect people, animals, and the environment.
“Researchers and policymakers tend to focus on only one domain, when they really are interconnected,” said Nicole Deziel, the paper’s lead author and an associate professor of epidemiology (environmental health sciences), environment, and chemical and environmental engineering at Yale University. “This paper provides strategies to promote approaching oil and gas extraction industries and their impacts in a more holistic, interdisciplinary way.”
Joining Deziel on the paper are Liba Pejchar, a professor in the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology at Colorado State University and the study’s senior author; and Bhavna Shamasunder, associate professor, chair of the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy, and co-chair of the Department of Public Health at Occidental College.
The interdisciplinary collaboration on the paper "Synergies and Trade-Offs in Reducing Impacts of Unconventional Oil and Gas Development on Wildlife and Human Health" came about during a workshop on the community effects of oil and gas development that Deziel attended several years ago. She was fascinated by Pejchar and Shamasunder’s presentations and discussed the crossovers in their perspectives during a long bus ride to a hydraulic fracturing well pad. That impromptu interaction, Deziel said, highlights the value of conferences that include representatives of different disciplines, one of the paper’s recommendations.
In their paper, the authors describe how past protection measures, however well-intended, have sometimes favored one interest (the environment and wildlife for instance) at the expense of another (humans and domestic animals) and vice versa. Deziel used setbacks and buffers as an example. Setbacks aim to protect human health by prohibiting gas and oil drilling within a certain distance of homes, schools, and other community domains. However, this approach may encroach on animal habitats, shifting the threat from humans to animals and the natural world. Buffers are similarly implemented, but with a goal of protecting wildlife and sensitive environmental areas. In contrast, limiting drilling altogether would be protective of both people and animals.