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Gas Industry Spin Can't Cover Up Air Problems Associated With Fracking
It’s like the gas industry and their apologists are living in a different universe from the rest of us, when it comes to the risks from shale gas extraction via fracking. Call it the “Spin Zone.”
At a Wall Street Journal conference last week, Chesapeake Energy CEO Aubrey McClendon told attendees: “I don’t know of any problem with air pollution from fracking in Fort Worth” Texas. McClendon peevishly referred to air pollution concerns raised by Riverkeeper President Paul Gallay [whom McClendon refused to share the stage with] as “environmental nonsense.” Since then, industry-sponsored posts like this and this argue against links between fracking and air pollution.
Well, read on. Then decide who’s spouting “nonsense”:
- TCEQ’s latest estimates of air emissions tell us that oil and gas operations in the Dallas-Fort Worth region emit more smog-causing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than all cars, trucks, buses, and other mobile sources in the area combined (114 tons per day of VOCs for oil and gas production and drilling versus 80 tons per day of VOCs for mobile sources). These same statistics show that VOCs associated with oil and gas production have increased 60% since 2006.
- In 2011, Dallas-Fort Worth violated federal ozone standards on more days than anywhere else in Texas, including Houston. Ozone, a corrosive gas that can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory diseases, is created when VOCs like petroleum hydrocarbons mix with heat and sunlight. Dallas is a “particularly extreme case,” of recent increases in air pollution in Texas, according to David Allen, a chemical engineering professor and state air-quality program director.
- In Texas, which had about 93,000 natural-gas wells in 2011, up from around 58,000 a dozen years ago, a hospital system in six counties with some of the heaviest drilling, including the Barnett Shale region, said in 2010 that it found “children in the community ages 6-9 are three times more likely to have asthma than the average for that age group in the State of Texas.” According to Baylor University, in 2009, childhood asthma rates in Tarrant County, part of the Barnett Shale, were more than double the national average, prompting a new study to evaluate asthma and pollution sources.
- In 2010, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) found two gas fields with extremely high levels of benzene and another 19 with elevated levels among the 94 it tested in the Barnett Shale. According to TCEQ toxicologist Shannon Ethridge, their analysis in the Barnett Shale have shown “some of the highest benzene concentrations we have monitored in the state.”
Up north in the Mountain States, the problem is just as serious:
- According to a 2012 study from the Colorado School of Public Health, cancer risks were 66% higher for residents living less than half a mile from oil and gas wells than for those living farther away, with benzene being the major contributor to the increased risk. This same study reminds us that chronic exposure to ozone, prevalent at gas production sites, can lead to asthma and pulmonary diseases, particularly in children and the aged.
- A recent study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (“NOAA”) found elevated levels of methane coming from well sites in Northeastern Colorado. NOAA scientists say initial results from another study show high concentrations of butane, ethane and propane in Erie, east of Boulder, where hundreds of natural-gas wells are operating.” “We are finding a huge amount of methane and other chemicals coming out of the natural-gas fields,” said Russell Schnell, a NOAA scientist in Boulder. The NOAA study estimates that gas producers in this area are losing about 4% of gas to the atmosphere – not including losses in the pipeline and distribution system.
- Levels of ozone in Wyoming’s fracking country are higher than in Los Angeles (Wyoming levels have been as high as 124 parts per billion, two-thirds higher than the federal EPA’s maximum healthy limit). In 2009, Wyoming’s environmental agency concluded “that elevated ozone at the Boulder [Wyoming] monitor is primarily due to local emissions from oil and gas (O&G) development activities: drilling, production, storage, transport, and treating.“
Finally, let’s not forget the 2011 Duke University study proving that drinking water wells near fracking sites have 17 times more methane than wells not located near fracking, and that this extra methane has a chemical fingerprint showing that it’s been brought up from deep drilling zones. Fracking operations have generated billions of gallons of radiation-laced toxic wastewater that we can’t manage properly and forced families to abandon their homes because of dangerous levels of arsenic, benzene and toluene in their blood.
The drillers remain in deep denial, routinely choosing to “circle the wagons” rather than to acknowledge environmental and public health problems. As a Wall Street Journal conference blogger pointedly observed, after McClendon was accused of denying problems and demonizing critics, his next move was to do just that: deny and demonize.
Well, the WSJ conference attendees weren’t buying the drillers’ “don’t worry, just buy more gas” message. After Thursday’s debate with Riverkeeper, an astonishing 49% of this business-friendly audience said that we need federal regulation of the gas industry. Only 7% thought the answer to our
problems lies with self-regulation by the frackers.
Fracking and its impact on public health, in particular our children’s health, is a serious issue that calls for swift action—action that the gas industry has repeatedly tried to block. As we write this, in New York, the industry is fighting against a legislative proposal for a public health impact assessment which hundreds of medical professionals have joined community activists and environmentalists in supporting.
The frackers can spin the issue all they want, but the public isn’t buying it. They know where the “nonsense” is coming from.