It’s like some in the gas industry 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 he’s unaware of any problems resulting from the thousands of fracking wells drilled in Fort Worth, Texas in recent years. McClendon peevishly referred to the fracking-related air pollution concerns I raised at the conference as “environmental nonsense.”
Well, read on. Then decide who’s talking “nonsense”:
In December 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reported 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. This wasn’t true before the fracking boom: TCEQ’s data shows that VOCs from oil and gas production have increased 60 percent since 2006.
Ozone, a corrosive gas that can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory diseases, is created when VOCs from petroleum operations mix with heat and sunlight. In 2011, Dallas-Fort Worth violated federal ozone standards on more days than anywhere else in Texas. Dallas-Fort Worth is a “particularly extreme” example of higher air pollution in Texas, according to David Allen, a chemical engineering professor and state air-quality program director.
In 2010, TCEQ found elevated levels of benzene around 21 gas fields out of the 94 it tested in the Barnett Shale. According to TCEQ toxicologist Shannon Ethridge, their monitors in the Barnett Shale pulled up “some of the highest benzene concentrations we have monitored in the state.”
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, found that “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 the Tarrant County area of the Barnett were more than double the national average, prompting a new study to evaluate asthma and pollution sources.
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 percent 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. NOAA estimates that gas producers in this area are losing about 4 percent 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 which shows it’s coming from deep drilling. Fracking operations have generated billions of gallons of radiation-laced toxic wastewater that weren’t managed properly and fracking has forced families to abandon their homes after they were poisoned by dangerous levels of arsenic, benzene and toluene.
Most drillers remain in deep denial, routinely choosing to circle the wagons rather than acknowledge environmental and public health problems. As one Wall Street Journal conference blogger pointedly observed, after I suggested that the gas companies deny problems and demonize critics, McClendon’s next move was, well, to deny and demonize. To be fair, other pro-fracking conference panelists like former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell were somewhat more critical of the industry, arguing that the gas companies must accept blame for rushing fracking and relying on “cowboy” drillers.
In the end, conference attendees weren’t buying the drillers’ “don’t worry, just keep buying more of our gas” message. After my and McClendon’s mini-debate, an astonishing 49 percent of this business-friendly audience said that we need federal regulation of the gas industry. Only 7 percent 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 repeatedly tries to block. In New York, for example, the industry recently helped kill a legislative proposal for a public health impact assessment which hundreds of medical professionals had joined community activists and environmentalists in supporting.
Let the gas companies continue to deny fracking’s proven link to air and water pollution. The public isn’t buying their spin. They know where the “nonsense” is coming from.