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RBC I University of Maryland researchers just concluded that hydraulic fracturing—the process of shaking oil and gas free from below—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.
Maryland researchers largely base their research on flawed emissions data from the Colorado School of Public Health. The Colorado study, which blames fracking for high levels of local benzene, relies 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 research doesn’t even control for its share of emissions.
What’s more, the Colorado data relies on unrealistic inputs. The researchers assumed it takes five years to develop a well, when it actually takes as few as six months. Industry experts from the Independent Petroleum Association of America estimate this assumption causes the study to inflate pollutant-exposure times by as much as 900 percent.
Even Colorado’s own public health department has questioned this data.
After conducting its own air quality monitoring near local fracking wells, the department found “concentrations of various compounds comparatively low and not likely to raise significant health issues of concern.”
Yet Maryland researchers used this data set, ignoring the growing body of research that shows fracking poses a very low threat to air quality.
For instance, 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 pollutants did not exceed federal air quality standards.
Likewise, the Commission on Environmental Quality in Texas conducted a 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.”
The Maryland study also claims that fracking exacerbates water pollution. But this has been thoroughly debunked. A landmark study from the U.S. Department of Energy found no evidence of water contamination from fracking in western Pennsylvania.
Given this huge body of countervailing evidence, the University of Maryland’s findings are highly questionable.
They also 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 oxides volumes have dropped 18 percent and volatile organic compounds by 17 percent.
The fracking-enabled switch to natural gas reduced national greenhouse gas emissions, as well. Between 2005 and 2012, U.S. carbon dioxide emissions have fallen 12 percent.
Researchers have every right to investigate the health impact of fracking.
However, but sounding a false alarmcould do serious damage. Fracking is helping to wean our country off environmentally-unfriendly energy like coal. This practice is improving, not hurting, public health.
Chris Faulkner is chief executive officer of Breitling Energy Corporation and author of the recent book, “The Fracking Truth.” He is also the producer of the documentary, “Breaking Free: The Shale Rock Revolution.”