Is gas drilling ruining the air, polluting water and making people sick? The evidence is sketchy and inconclusive, but a lack of serious funding is delaying efforts to resolve those pressing questions and creating a vacuum that could lead to a crush of lawsuits, some experts say.
A House committee in June turned down an Obama administration request to fund $4.25 million in research on how drilling may affect water quality. In the spring, Pennsylvania stripped $2 million of funding that included a statewide health registry to track respiratory problems, skin conditions, stomach ailments and other illnesses potentially related to gas drilling.
"It's almost as if it's a secret, that they don't want to know about people who are affected," said Janet McIntyre, who lives near a drilling area about 30 miles north of Pittsburgh. "There's a lot of people in my neighborhood that have rashes and little red spots."
State officials say the air and water in the community is safe, and doctors haven't confirmed that drilling caused illnesses. But without a full-scale medical review or other research in such cases, the worries remain.
"Right now, the kind of comprehensive research that's needed just hasn't started," said Bernard Goldstein, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health.
The drilling boom has come about because of advances in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that have made enormous reserves of gas accessible, leading to more jobs and profits and lower energy costs. But there are also concerns about pollution. The gas is pulled from the ground through a process in which large volumes of water, plus sand and chemicals, are injected deep underground to break rock apart and free the gas.