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Thursday, 18 October 2012

Fracking – Is it an obscene word in Public Health?

In the space of a couple of weeks, this posting has had hundreds of hits, moreso than other postings on DrPHealth.  On one side it is a measure of the interest in fracking.  Please leave some comments so that others can benefit from what you find here.  

If you are aware what fracking is, you either live in oil and gas provinces, or deserve to be at the top of your class.

Fracking is the future of natural gas recovery and is opening up otherwise difficult to mine gas deposits located in predominately shale like rock formations.   It involves injection of high pressure fluid (water/salt water with additives) causing hydraulic fracturing of the rock and increasing accessibility for gas mining operations. 

Frankly, fracking is merely the lightening bolt for the expanding oil and gas industry.  An industry who have successfully argued in the past their technologies as safe and beneficial for health and environment and which are now sacred and untouchable from environmentalists and public health professionals. 

So in the midst of the quiet stalemate in provinces with long standing oil and gas operations like Alberta and Saskatchewan, novel reviews of the public health impacts of shale gas operations are coming forward from New Brunswick and struggling for legitimacy in BC. 

Hence the document released by  Dr. Ellish Cleary as Chief Medical Health Officer in New Brunswick is a bold and brave foray into the issues.  Coming from a province where an economic boon would likely be welcomed, the cautionary words on boost and bust economies and rapid industrial growth from such development investments are a courageous statement. Moreover the document is grounded in solid public health principles ranging from determinants of health, clear health delivery objectives and public health ethics.  For those not intimately involved in discussion with the industry, the document is an excellent example of taking a fundamental public health approach to a problem.   NB CMHO report on oil and gas industry

It is the sort of document that the industry might fear, but the type of material that is fundamentally grounded in principles and the need for appropriate information that decision makers will be challenged to ignore.   As the recommendations are based on a whole of industry perspective, it mitigates some of the past challenges about operation specific concerns such as debates over a particular sour gas well.  It also pushes hard for Public Health involvement in many aspects of the work to be done.

One can only hope that the province looks favourably on these common sense recommendations, and most importantly on the context of inclusion of human health as an outcome of interest in resource sector development.  

Kudos to New Brunswick and Dr. Cleary and thank you for displaying such courageous leadership. 

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