This week, the Clean Air Task Force (CATF), Earthworks and the FracTracker Alliance launched what they are calling an Oil and Gas “Threat Map” displaying 1.2 million oil and gas wells, compressor stations and processing plants across the country, as well as areas within a half mile that they claim are at risk from these facilities. This map was released alongside a new report, which claims emissions from oil and natural gas activities pose a health risk to residents living nearby. But a quick look into the report’s data and maps show these claims are no more than scare tactics employed in an attempt to mislead the public about the safety of oil and natural gas development.
Earthwork’s involvement in this report is pretty telling considering that this activist group, which has declared a “war on fracking” and whose Texas spokesperson compared fracking to sexual assault, is notorious for releasing reports that are more egregious than scientific. As for CATF, it has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Energy Foundation, a prominent anti-fossil fuel organization that has poured millions into anti-fracking causes.
Here are a few things to know about the report and map website:
Fact #1: Researchers admit “data quality issues” and “uncertainties” – concede their report is “not a measure of actual risk”
According to this report, the EPA data used is from the latest National Air Toxics Assessment (NATA) as well as emissions from EPA’s National Emissions Inventory (NEI). Together, these two sources, the researchers claim, show pollutant concentrations, emissions sources, and places that exceed the EPA’s “level of concern” for increased cancer risk – an area where risk is greater than one in a million. However, even the authors acknowledge the limitations to this data, stating:
“The EPA developed NATA to inform nation and local data collection and policy efforts. However, the agency emphasizes that because of data quality issues and uncertainties in the model, the data should be used cautiously.”
The report continues, mentioning that these data are not a measure of the actual risk in certain areas:
“[NATA] should be used to screen for geographic areas with high risk, not a measure of actual risk in specific locations.”
Further, right on the website for the map, under the section on the “threat radius” it says,
“The Threat Radius is the area within ½ mile of active oil and gas wells, compressors and processors. It indicates that those within it should be concerned; it is not a declaration that those within it will have negative health impacts. The Threat Radius does not quantify the threat posed by this pollution.” (emphasis added)
Fact #2: Researchers own data contradict their conclusions
That said, even the NATA projections contradict the report’s claims that oil and natural gas is to blame for increasing health risks. According to NATA data, Tarrant Country, TX, located at the heart of the Barnett Shale, actually has less than two-thirds the total cancer risk of Polk County, Iowa, which has no oil and natural gas production and isn’t even mentioned in this report.
The authors try to obscure this discrepancy between what they claim and what the NATA data shows by arguing that the NATA data is an “underestimate” of the health impacts of oil and gas operations. As such, the authors develop their own estimates for the level of health risks they claim are related to oil and gas activities, based on EPA projection of 2017 emissions. As the report states in the “Results” section:
“Using projections of toxic air emissions from EPA’s National Emissions Inventory (NEI) for 2017, we estimate that 238 counties in 21 states face cancer risk above EPA’s 1-in-a-million level of concern due to toxic emissions from oil and gas operations (National Map).”
In other words, the “results” of this study are estimates of possible future health risks, based on a projection of future emissions coupled with a projection of health risks that even the authors admit has limitations.
This is also true of the maps which use the same data. Even the authors note,
“Because the average health risk includes more types of facilities than the Threat Radius, there are some counties that show increased average health risk even though they host no active facilities plotted on the map, nor are adjacent to counties that host such facilities – like Appomattox County, Virginia.”
Of course, there are other contributing factors to the emissions levels in these counties that have nothing to do with oil and gas. And while that may be apparent in places where there is absolutely no oil and gas related facilities, what the authors fail to mention is that those additional facilities could also be contributing factors in emissions in oil and gas regions as well. Despite this, the map creators treat every region with any oil and gas facilities as if those facilities are the sole emitters of any emissions.
When it comes the counties listed as having a higher risk for cancer and “air toxics”, a similar story unfolds. Once again all emissions are considered being from oil and gas. But the maps themselves don’t always help the authors make this point. For instance, to look at the Pennsylvania Map one can see that some of the most heavily developed areas of the state like Bradford, Susquehanna, Tioga and Lycoming Counties in the Northern Tier are actually well below the EPA’s level of concern.
In reality, the authors admit they had no real scientific basis to pick the half mile radius used:
“We use a ½ mile radius because it is a very conservative estimate of the area within which elevated levels of toxic pollution are seen, and the distance within which health impacts have most clearly been correlated with the presence of oil and gas facilities.”
Fact #3: Studies that take actual measurements from air monitors have found low emissions from oil and gas operations
Meanwhile, there are numerous studies that have actually taken direct measurements with air monitors, which have found that emissions are well below the threshold for what would be harmful to human health.
The last time Earthworks put out a report like this the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality responded saying the agency has collected “several millions of data points for volatile organic compounds” in the Barnett Shale and Eagle Ford Shale. “Overall, the monitoring data provide evidence that shale play activity does not significantly impact air quality or pose a threat to human health.”
The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection have all found that hydraulic fracturing does not pose a credible threat to air quality or public health. In fact, Pennsylvania’s DEP found that over 500 million tons of emissions have actually been removed from the Commonwealth’s air thanks to the increased use of natural gas. For Pa. DEP Secretary, Chris Abruzzo, said,
“It is important to note that across-the-board emission reductions … can be attributed to the steady rise in the production and development of natural gas, the greater use of natural gas, lower allowable emissions limits, installation of control technology and the deactivation of certain sources.” (emphasis added)
Colorado State University has just finished a study of direct measurements, and while the data aren’t yet available, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported on what the lead researchers said:
“Collett said none of the emissions findings were particularly alarming…Collett said standards for benzene are primarily occupation-based, and a variety of benzene standards exist and would have been applicable in terms of measuring any immediate health risk, including to the research team. “We didn’t see concentrations near those standards,” he said.
In 2012, after activist groups raised concerns over emissions related to oil and natural gas development in Erie, CO, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), Air Pollution Control Division, installed air sampling monitors near a well site that had come under intense criticism from the activists. That testing concluded:
“The monitored concentrations of benzene, one of the major risk driving chemicals, are well within acceptable limits to protect public health, as determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The concentrations of various compounds are comparatively low and are not likely to raise significant health issues of concern.”
The map actually identifies the number of schools and hospitals the authors’ deem at risk, yet ignores the recent report released from Fort Cherry School District in Pennsylvania after activists raised concerns in the community. The school district commissioned the company ChemRisk to perform air monitoring during the hydraulic fracturing and flaring operations at a well pad located approximately 900 yards north of the school campus in 2011, and the results from the air monitoring clearly show air quality near the school had no adverse impacts from shale development taking place nearby. From the ChemRisk report:
“The results of the fracking and flaring sampling periods were similar to the results obtained from the baseline monitoring period and likewise, did not show anything remarkable with respect to chemicals detected in the ambient air. When volatile compounds were detected, they were consistent with background levels measured at the school and in other areas in Washington County. Furthermore, a basic yet conservative screening level evaluation shows that the detected volatile compounds were below health-protective levels.” (emphasis added)
And that’s not even getting into the studies spearheaded by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) as well as studies by University of Colorado at Boulder/NOAA, MIT, the University of Maryland, the U.S. Department of Energy, Carnegie Mellon and Cornell University that found very low methane leakage rates ranging from 1.2 percent to 1.6 percent, which is far below the threshold (3.2 percent) for natural gas to be substantially beneficial for the climate.
Fact #4: Natural gas is the reason U.S. air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are plummeting
Moreover, numerous studies have shown the increase in natural gas usage for electricity generation has significantly decreased air pollutants. For example, while U.S. natural gas production increased by 35 percent, and natural gas-fired electricity generation increased by 50 percent, from 2005 to 2013, fine particulate matter (PM 2.5) decreased 60 percent over that same time period.
But that’s not all, sulfur dioxide (SO2), which the EPA lists as a pollutant “of greatest concern” for health, dropped 68 percent between 2005 and 2013. Additionally, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which the EPA links to possible respiratory issues, declined by 52 percent as natural gas use soared between 2005 and 2013. All thanks to fracking and natural gas use.
In addition to this hard data supporting increased shale development actually provide health benefits instead of increasing health risks, many academics and experts have touted natural gas for being protective of public health. As Dr. Michael Greenstone, a professor of environmental economics at MIT, stated:
“There’s a strong case that people in the U.S. are already leading longer lives as a consequence of the fracking revolution.”
Stefan Heck, a consulting professor at the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford, echoed Dr. Greenstone’s sentiment, writing in the book, Resource Revolution:
“Still, the use of natural gas is reducing pollution at a rapid pace and is much safer, cleaner, and more economic than the alternatives today.”
And, as University of California-Berkeley physicist and Professor Richard Muller put it:
“Air pollution can be mitigated by the development and utilization of shale gas… Environmentalists should recognize the shale gas revolution as beneficial to society – and lend their full support to helping advance it.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) even recently said,
“A key development since AR4 is the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply…is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.”
Overall, it’s clear that this report and the new map website are both yet another attempt by anti-fracking activist groups to scare the public about oil and natural gas development. By providing no context for the supposed risks claimed in the report, ignoring the fact that increased natural gas use has actually improved air quality, and presenting estimated “results” of health risks based on projections and data with admitted limitations, CATF and Earthworks have failed to produce a scientific report and instead published misinformation.