Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration said Friday that it would fund additional research on the potential health impacts of natural gas development in the state.

The move comes in response to growing concerns in four southwestern Pennsylvania counties where shale development is robust, and high numbers of childhood and young adult cancers have been reported, including more than two dozen cases of the rare bone cancer known as Ewing Sarcoma. For months, residents from the area have been pushing the state to explore any possible links between the cancer cases and natural gas development.

Public meetings have been held and the communities have heard from expert panelists on the matter. Oil and gas development, along with other industrial sources, such as a uranium mill tailings site in the region, have been floated as possible causes. The prevalence of cancer, however, makes it difficult to link clusters to any one cause.

Wolf said the stories shared by families have been heartbreaking.

“I understand and support the concerns of parents and desire of community members to learn more about the possible reasons for these cancer cases,” he said. “Ewing Sarcoma is rare and currently has no known environmental cause, but it is imperative that we do all that we can to thoroughly research and advance the science on the health effects of oil and gas extraction and natural gas development.”

In a joint statement, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association and the American Petroleum Institutes’ Pennsylvania chapter said they welcomed the additional research.

“We continue to strongly support transparent, rigorous and objective research that comprehensively and thoroughly evaluates all potential factors and other efforts aimed at better understanding these highly complex and difficult matters,” the state’s leading trade organizations said.

The groups added that they’re committed to working closely with the administration on the research, but also encouraged state officials “to neutrally, fairly, and without bias, evaluate all potential factors.”

Wolf’s office said the state Department of Health would work on two separate studies with an academic partner still to be selected. The studies, the administration said, would likely come at a cost of $1 million annually over the next three years. 

One project would be a case control study of childhood cancers, including Ewing Sarcoma, that would utilize data from the cancer registry and cancer referral centers to determine control population characteristics and gather data from controls and interviews. The study would be designed to “show if those being diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma tumors or childhood cancers are more often exposed” to hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations than controls, the administration said.

The other study would look at acute conditions, such as asthma and birth outcomes, “that have previously showed some relationship to certain industries in existing published research.” Conducting the research in southwest Pennsylvania could shed light on those findings and better determine the health effects on natural gas development, the administration said.

Last summer, as the public outcry grew louder, Wolf said he wanted more data on the potential health impacts of unconventional oil and gas development, and said he had reached out to state Secretary of Health Rachel Levine to determine how best to proceed.

The state has already investigated hundreds of complaints about the industry’s possible health impacts. In June, the health department’s Bureau of Epidemiology completed a years-long review of literature regarding the potential health impacts of fracking in particular. It concluded that more study and research is needed to properly gauge any impacts.

“It is essential to better understand the scientific evidence of public health issues related to hydraulic fracturing,” Levine said Friday. “These studies will provide us with a more in-depth understanding  of this issue than we have been able to do with the resources at our disposal.”

Pennsylvania now churns out more natural gas than any other state except Texas. Production from the Marcellus and Utica shales from across the state was more than 6 Tcf in 2018.