Opinion: Shale Gas A Boon to Public Health

on December 12, 2013 at 10:00 AM

Blackpool's Shale Gas Drilling Begins

You’ve probably heard that the United States is experiencing an unprecedented energy boom that is transforming our economy, enhancing our energy security, and creating a manufacturing renaissance — all thanks to hydraulic fracturing and the development of America’s massive oil and natural gas resources. But what you probably haven’t heard is that shale development has an added bonus: it is rapidly reducing emissions of all kinds, which translates to massive public health benefits.

A new report by University of California-Berkeley climate scientist Richard Muller puts the health benefits of natural gas in the spotlight, concluding that “air pollution can be mitigated by the development and utilization of shale gas,” and because of this, “environmentalists who oppose the development of shale gas and fracking are making a tragic mistake.”

The report’s main focus is the air quality benefits of natural gas developed from shale, which could be especially effective in places like China that have rapidly growing economies, and by extension a great need for affordable and abundant energy. The authors say they’re “amazed” that local air quality benefits are “not more widely addressed by environmentalists,” especially in the context of the fracking debate.

It’s even more amazing when you consider that Muller’s report is only the latest in a string of studies and analyses that have highlighted how the U.S. energy boom and hydraulic fracturing can lead to less air pollution.  The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found that over 500 million tons of emissions have been removed from the Commonwealth’s air thanks to the increased use of natural gas.  An environmental think tank, The Breakthrough Institute, found that the increased development and utilization of natural gas “have dramatically reduced emissions across Pennsylvania.”

Dr. Daniel Schrag, director of Harvard University’s Center for the Environment, recently 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, has said, “There’s a strong case that people in the U.S. are already leading longer lives as a consequence of the fracking revolution.”

And if that’s not enough, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy recently called shale a “game changer” for public health. As she put it:

“[T]he pollution that I’m looking at is traditional pollutants as well as carbon. And 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.”

Meanwhile, regulators from Colorado and Texas have consistently found that shale development is protective of public health. In the Barnett Shale region of north Texas, ozone levels actually declined as natural gas development expanded over the past decade.

Hydraulic fracturing has been utilized in the United States since the late 1940s, and has been applied more than 1.2 million times. During that period it has compiled a strong record of safety. Researchers from MIT and Stanford, officials from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations, as well as dozens of state regulators have consistently affirmed that hydraulic fracturing is safe. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz has stated that the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing are “manageable,” while Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, an engineer herself, has observed that “fracking has been done safely for many, many years.”

Not only is hydraulic fracturing safe, but it’s abundantly clear that natural gas is also a key ingredient for addressing environmental and public health concerns.  The Muller report puts it best, concluding that environmental groups should “recognize the shale gas revolution as beneficial to society – and lend their full support to helping it advance.”

Dana Bohan is a spokeswoman for Energy In Depth, a research and public education program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.