University of Maryland researchers recently warned that hydraulic fracturing — the process of shaking oil and gas free from shale deposits far belowground — could endanger the health of nearby residents by exposing them to air and water pollution.
This would certainly be cause for alarm — if true. But it’s not.
The study doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. And its baseless claims could threaten a drilling technique that has actually lessened the harmful health impacts of the energy industry by reducing our reliance on coal.
The U of M researchers largely relied on data from another flawed study from the Colorado School of Public Health.
The Colorado study — which blamed fracking for high levels of local carcinogenic benzene — relied on air samples at well sites located within a mile of a major interstate.
Vehicle exhaust is the largest source of benzene, but the Colorado researchers didn’t even control for those pollutants.
The Colorado data also incorporates a false assumption, namely that it takes five years to develop a well. In fact, it actually takes as few as six months.
Industry experts from the Independent Petroleum Association of America estimate this error alone caused the study to inflate pollutant-exposure times by as much as 900 percent.
Even Colorado’s own Department of Public Health and Environment has questioned this data.
After conducting its own air-quality monitoring near local fracking wells, the DPHE found “concentrations of various compounds comparatively low and not likely to raise significant health issues of concern.”
Yet the U of M researchers still relied on this flawed dataset — even as they also ignored the growing body of research that shows fracking poses a very low or nonexistent threat to air quality.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection monitored numerous fracking sites across the state and found that nearby levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and several other key pollutants didn’t exceed federal air-quality standards.
The Commission on Environmental Quality in Texas conducted an extensive study on fracking in the Barnett Shale. Researchers found “no immediate health concerns from air quality” and that “oil and gas operations do not cause harmful excess air emissions.”
West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection has also found that fracking doesn’t endanger air quality.
The Maryland study also claims that fracking exacerbates water pollution. But this has been thoroughly debunked. A landmark study from the US Department of Energy found no evidence of water contamination from fracking in western Pennsylvania.
This huge body of countervailing evidence doesn’t just render the University of Maryland findings highly questionable, it casts great doubt on the objectivity and professionalism of the U of M researchers.
And all these boutique anti-fracking studies miss the bigger picture. The natural gas produced through fracking is helping America transition away from a dirtier fossil fuel: coal.
Smog, soot and greenhouse-gas emissions from coal-fired power and manufacturing plants here in the United States, China and around the world remain among the biggest environmental threats of our age.
Thanks to fracking, we now have a cost-competitive and cleaner energy alternative. Natural gas produces significantly less smog and soot than burning coal.
Indeed, the emergence of gas and decline of coal has reduced the American power sector’s annual sulfur-dioxide and nitrogen-oxide emissions by an estimated 40 percent.
In Pennsylvania, over the half decade since fracking achieved widespread use, annual sulfur-dioxide emissions from single, identifiable pollution sources have fallen 60 percent. Nitrogen-oxide volumes have dropped 18 percent; emissions of volatile organic compounds, 17 percent.
The fracking-enabled switch to natural gas significantly reduced national greenhouse-gas emissions, as well. From 2005 to 2012, US carbon-dioxide emissions fell 12 percent. Even China is looking to fracking as a way to alleviate its air-pollution woes.
Researchers have every right to investigate the health impact of fracking. But sounding a false alarm could do serious damage. Fracking is helping to wean our country off environmentally unfriendly energy like coal.
This practice is improving, not hurting, public health.
Written by: Chris Faulkner , CEO of Breitling Energy Corp., author of “The Fracking Truth,” and producer of the upcoming documentary, “Breaking Free: The Shale Rock Revolution.”