House energy committee Republicans are criticizing the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry's (ATSDR) plans to study the potential health impacts related to shale gas development, raising scientific integrity concerns and calling for heightened scientific scrutiny of ATSDR's pending studies.
They also call for the Obama administration's top health official to consider consulting with state oil and gas regulators in conducting the research.
"Despite the significant growth of natural gas development, we are greatly concerned that the scientific objectivity of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is being subverted and countless jobs could be in jeopardy," House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI), along with Chairman Emeritus Joe Barton (R-TX), and subcommittee chairmen Ed Whitfield (R-KY), Joseph Pitts (R-PA) and John Shimkus (R-IL) say in a Nov. 30 letter to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
The letter underscores Republicans' strategy, recently referenced by the committee's counsel, of using its oversight powers to pressure the administration to refrain from taking steps that limit oil and gas development and impinge on states' long-standing oversight of drilling operations. "Our view is that the Obama administration wants to assert federal control of oil and gas," Michael Bloomquist, general counsel for the energy committee, said during a Nov. 13 law conference.
ATSDR, which is housed under HHS as part of the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), is developing a health database to chronicle adverse effects reported by those living in areas of high natural gas development activity. And CDC has established workgroups to study potential human health implications associated with the rapid expansion of shale gas extraction activities.
In the letter, however, lawmakers raise concerns with recent statements from ATSDR's director, Dr. Chris Portier, that the GOP says call "into question whether a study under his leadership can be objectively and validly conducted." Among other things, Portier has allegedly said that shale gas development "has been a disaster" in some areas and that anecdotal evidence of environmentally-induced illness warrants a "more serious and systematic approach to studying it."
Republicans also raised concerns with his remarks made earlier this year that fracking fluid can contain "potentially hazardous chemical classes."
Portier during an Institute of Medicine meeting in April touted a strong role for CDC in studying human health risks from shale gas drilling, saying that "CDC is America's public health agency and we've put the boots on the ground" to address those risks.
Also in the letter, lawmakers urge ATSDR to "consult with State regulatory and public health officials who have much deeper experience monitoring the effects of hydraulic fracturing than most Federal officials have," in particular suggesting that the registry include the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission in the studies.
And lawmakers are urging Sebelius to ensure that any studies conducted by ATSDR are designated as "highly influential scientific assessments" -- a designation which implies a higher level of peer review that House Republicans have sought for a slew of EPA studies, including the agency's pending analysis of the relationship between fracking and drinking water. "Accordingly, ATSDR should formally designate these studies as such and ensure that the appropriate levels of funding, rigor, and transparency are applied to ensure the studies are properly carried out," the letter says.