It’s no secret by now what the shale gas (and oil!) renaissance made possible by the deployment of advanced hydraulic fracturing technology has done for the nation’s economy, its geopolitical position, and the millions of consumers and manufacturers who continue to benefit from historically low energy costs.
But the case in support of shale’s salubrious effect on air quality and health continues to be an underreported phenomenon – mostly because, unlike those other great benefits delivered by shale, the health and wellness impacts have largely been a function of indirect factors further down the consumption chain.
But a new report compiled by Energy In Depth shows quite clearly that, since the shale revolution began, a number of key criteria pollutants have dramatically declined, having a profoundly positive effect on public health for families across the country. Here below is just one chart that illustrates this impact – this one, specifically focused on the drop in fine particulate matter (PM):
Data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) show a 60 percent decrease in PM 2.5 from 2005 to 2013. Over that same period, U.S. natural gas production increased by 35 percent, and natural gas-fired electricity generation increased by 50 percent.
PM consists of particles that can be generated from industrial activities, or produced from natural phenomena such as forest fires. According to the EPA’s 2009 “Integrated Science Assessment for Particulate Matter,” fine particulate matter can cause early death, cardiovascular or respiratory harm.
As University of California-Berkeley physicist Richard Muller explained in a recent report, fine particulate matter is a “horrific environmental problem” in countries like China and India where “air pollution in 2010 led to 3.2 million deaths that year.” But Muller sees natural gas as the solution to that problem – a solution that is already being implemented widely in the United States with great results, thanks to shale development. As Muller states,
“[S]hale gas is a wonderful gift that has arrived just in time. It can not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but also reduce a deadly pollution known as PM2.5 that is currently killing over three million people each year, primarily in the developing world.”
The same kind of dramatic decline can be seen in emissions of sulfur dioxide. According to EPA, sulfur dioxides (SOx, SO2 and SO3) can “penetrate deeply into sensitive parts of the lungs and can cause or worsen respiratory disease, such as emphysema and bronchitis, and can aggravate existing heart disease, leading to increased hospital admissions and premature death.” SO2 in particular is “of greatest concern” for health, according to EPA. But as the following graphs show, SO2 declined by 68 percent between 2005 and 2013, while natural gas production and use significantly increased:
Another prominent pollutant on EPA’s radar screen is nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which most often comes from vehicle exhaust and, when paired with sunlight and other things, can contribute to ground-level ozone formation. According to EPA, there is “a connection between breathing elevated short-term NO2 concentrations, and increased visits to emergency departments and hospital admissions for respiratory issues.” As the following chart shows, NO2 emissions declined by 52 percent as natural gas use skyrocketed.
Importantly, as EPA explains, acid rain is “caused by a chemical reaction that begins when compounds like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides are released into the air.” So with 68 and 50 percent reductions in SO2 and NO2, the incidence of acid rain across the United States has also been dramatically reduced.
This data is very much in line with a recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which found that “The increased use of natural gas has…led to emissions reductions of NOx (40%) and SO2 (44%).” According to the report:
“Further reductions in these emissions can follow by converting a larger fraction of U.S. electric power production to natural gas, and by ensuring that all natural gas power plants are equipped with the latest combined cycle technology.”
That’s not the only good news on air emissions. EPA also recently released its latest Report on the Environment, which looks at key historical trends in the concentrations of a number of air pollutants. In that report, EPA finds major decreases in pollutants across the board in the exact same time frame that the development and use of natural gas skyrocketed:
Another pollutant that has dramatically decreased, thanks in large part to increased natural gas use, is mercury. As EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy explained recently, “cheap natural gas—mostly from fracking operations—has improved air quality in the U.S.” by replacing “mercury-laden” emissions from other energy sources. As the EPA puts it, “Emissions of sulfur dioxide and mercury compounds from burning natural gas are negligible.”
Experts Attribute Gains to Natural Gas
Public awareness of the significant role that natural gas has played (and continues to play) in improving our nation’s air quality has grown over the years, and today even those who oppose fossil-fuel use and development have been forced to grudgingly concede and acknowledge those facts. But fewer observers have been willing to assign proper credit to the technologies that have made the discovery of these natural gas supplies possible.
To her credit, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy is not one of them. In a recent interview, she did not hesitate in drawing a straight line between the significant environmental gains that have been made and the deployment of hydraulic fracturing technology:
“Hydrofracking has certainly changed the energy dynamic considerably…it has created an opportunity for a shift…into natural gas, and that shift has been enormously beneficial from a clean air perspective, as well as from a climate perspective.”
And that wasn’t the first time McCarthy touted the health benefits of natural gas, either. As she said in an interview last year:
“Natural gas has been a game changer with our ability to really move forward with pollution reductions that have been very hard to get our arms around for many decades.”
A number of academic experts have also weighed in on the issue. Dr. Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment, has said, “With proper regulation and enforcement, gas provides a very substantial health benefit in reducing air pollution.” Dr. Michael Greenstone, professor of environmental economics at MIT, said, “There’s a strong case that people in the U.S. are already leading longer lives as a consequence of the fracking 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. In addition, as fracking continues to innovate, the techniques will reduce land use, water requirements, and airshed impact.”
Professor Muller of UC-Berkeley perhaps put it best, though, when he said,
“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 it advance.”
Muller also noted,
“Environmentalists who oppose the development of shale gas and fracking are making a tragic mistake.”
Benefits In States and Cities
Individual states and cities have seen results similar to the ones being registered on the national level. In Pennsylvania, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) found in 2013 that over 500 million tons of emissions had actually been removed from the Commonwealth’s air as it increased its natural gas use. As DEP explained,
“The SOx emissions have decreased as a result of the installation of control equipment on the electric generating units as well as the conversion to natural gas.”
An environmental think tank, the Breakthrough Institute, has reported that the increased development and utilization of natural gas has been a clear winner for air quality in Pennsylvania:
“[N]ew builds in gas-fired power plants and the associated surge in fracking have dramatically reduced emissions across Pennsylvania, including deadly particulates, heavy metals, and the NOx and SOx which cause smog, acid rain, and health problems.”
In the natural gas emissions inventory issued in 2012 by Pa. DEP, regulators highlighted that the total emissions reductions represented “between $14 billion and $37 billion of annual public health benefits.” In light of these decreases in emissions across the state, Chris Abruzzo, Secretary of DEP, pointed out,
“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.”
Despite its ban on shale development, New York has greatly benefitted from increased natural gas use. In 2013, then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg made the stunning announcement that “New York has the cleanest air now of any American city.” That year, New York achieved its best air quality rating in 50 years. As the mayor’s press release explained,
“Since 2008, the levels of sulfur dioxide (SOx) in the air have dropped by 69 percent and since 2007 the level of soot pollution (PM2.5) has dropped by 23 percent. The largest contributor to the reductions is the PlaNYC’s Clean Heat program, which phased out use of the most heavily polluting heating oils in New York City. The cleaner air enjoyed by New Yorkers today is preventing 800 deaths 2,000 emergency room visits and hospitalizations from lung and cardiovascular diseases annually, compared to 2008.”
The mayor’s office attributed this reduction in large part to the city’s efforts to greatly expand natural gas use through its “long-term sustainability blueprint, PlaNYC.” Also from the press release:
“[T]he expansion of the regional natural gas supply and local gas distribution infrastructure operated by Con Edison and National Grid has encouraged buildings to save money and reduce emissions by converting to natural gas. As a result, citywide concentrations of SO2 have declined by 69 percent and nickel by 35 percent. Neighborhoods with the highest density of emissions reductions from boiler conversions – such as northern Manhattan, northern Queens, and the South Bronx – saw the greatest improvement in air quality.”
“[N]atural gas produces minuscule amounts of such toxic air pollutants as sulfur dioxide and mercury when burned — so…natural-gas-fired electricity generation is improving overall air quality, which improves public health.”
Research Confirms Development is Protective of Public Health
In the face of this overwhelming evidence, anti-fracking groups have continued to deny the science and have even resorted to writing, “peer” reviewing, and funding their own research to manufacture and disseminate an alternate, factually incorrect narrative. But studies that have actually measured emissions directly on well pads have shown that development is protective of public health. These include:
- An analysis by Pa. DEP that found air emissions in the Marcellus region significantly decreased in 2012. In fact, according to DEP secretary Abruzzo, the “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.”
- A report commissioned by Fort Cherry School District in southwest Pennsylvania, which examined air emissions at a nearby well site, “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.”
- A recent study led by researchers at Drexel University that found low levels of air emissions at well sites in the Marcellus region. As they explained, “we did not observe elevated levels of any of the light aromatic compounds (benzene, toluene, etc.)” and “there are few emissions of nonalkane VOCs (as measured by PTR-MS) from Marcellus Shale development.”
- A study by Professional Service Industries, Inc., commissioned by Union Township in Pennsylvania that found “Airborne gas and TVOC levels appear to have been at or near background levels for the entire monitoring periods in the three locations monitored.”
- A study on emissions in the Barnett Shale by the Houston based ToxStrategies which concluded that there is no credible health risk associated with shale development. As the researchers noted: “The analyses demonstrate that, for the extensive number of VOCs measured, shale gas production activities have not resulted in community-wide exposures to those VOCs at levels that would pose a health concern.”
- The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality conducted months of testing in the Barnett Shale region of North Texas, and its samples showed “no levels of concern for any chemicals.” TCEQ added that “there are no immediate health concerns from air quality in the area.”
- A report by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection which found no major health threat from shale. According to that report: “Based on a review of completed air studies to date, including the results from the well pad development monitoring conducted in West Virginia’s Brooke, Marion, and Wetzel Counties, no additional legislative rules establishing special requirements need to be promulgated at this time.”
- The Colorado Department of Public Health installed air quality monitors at a well site that activists had complained about. CDPHE 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.”
- A study by the Texas Department of State Health Services which used incorporated testing of individuals’ blood samples to see if there was a relationship between air emissions and poor health. The researchers concluded there was no connection.
- A recent study by the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council (BSEEC) looked at five Barnett wells in Mansfield, Tex., during both hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) and flowback activities. The report measured volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other emissions, and concluded that “none of the observed VOCs were noted above the comparison criteria.”
- The Pa. DEP conducted air monitoring northeast Pennsylvania and concluded that the state “did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” A similar report for southwestern Pennsylvania came to the same conclusion.
- A peer-reviewed study looking at cancer incidence rates in several Pennsylvania counties found “no evidence that childhood leukemia was elevated in any county after [hydraulic fracturing] commenced.”
- A report by Public Health England (PHE), an executive agency of the UK’s Department of Health, concluded: “The currently available evidence indicates that the potential risks to public health from exposure to the emissions associated with shale gas extraction are low if the operations are properly run and regulated.”
- The Ministry of Health in British Columbia, Canada recently released a report which found that public health risks from shale development are very low. As the assessment concludes, “The overall findings of the detailed HHRA of oil and gas activity in NE BC suggest that, while there is some possibility for elevated COPC [chemicals of potential concern] concentrations to occur at some locations, the probability that adverse health impacts would occur in association with these exposures is considered to be low.”
From 2005 to 2013 emissions of PM 2.5 have decreased by 60 percent; emissions of SO2 decreased by 68 percent; and emissions of NO2 decreased by 52 percent. As regulators and scientific experts have noted, this progress is largely due to the skyrocketing production and use of natural gas.
To be clear, energy development, whether we’re talking about fossil fuels or renewables, is not a risk-free endeavor. But the data not only show miniscule emissions from shale development, but also enormous reductions in pollution across the board attributable to the massive increase in natural gas consumption that hydraulic fracturing has made possible. These benefits have accrued in addition to an increase in jobs, tax revenue, and other economic gains – making natural gas a win-win in terms of benefitting public health and the economy alike.