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Facing the Frack: Gas is Not Enhancing our Environment

The fracked gas industry and its proponents excel at spinning false narratives about the health and safety of its operations, and often don’t tell the whole story when faced with facts.

Take, for instance, a groundbreaking study published by Carnegie Mellon University on Dec. 8 that found that for every three jobs created by the shale gas industry, someone’s life in the region is cut short by a year because of associated pollution.  

While not addressing the study specifically, industry trade group Marcellus Shale Coalition emailed a statement to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, saying that “we believe firmly…that natural gas is unquestionably enhancing our environment and air quality.”

It’s not, and there is recent and ample evidence to prove so. Look at a headline that broke earlier this week to find the fallacy within that statement: in February 2018, a blowout at a single gas well in Ohio—about 70 miles southwest of Pittsburgh—resulted in more than 60 kilotons of methane escaping into the atmosphere over a 20 day period.

Methane, the colorless and odorless main component of fracked gas, is an incredibly potent greenhouse gas that can warm the planet more than 80 times as much as the same amount of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period. It was a total disaster for the climate.

The massive leak in Ohio released about 120 metric tons of methane into the atmosphere per hour. The incident also forced about 100 residents to evacuate the area, residents who had previously complained about throat irritation, dizziness and other breathing problems.

To put it into perspective, this single incident resulted in more methane leaking into the atmosphere than most countries release in an entire year.

The methane leak and its consequences are frightening enough, but what about the fact that it took nearly two years to uncover the scope of the incident? According to the New York Times, the scale only became known after an analysis was undertaken by a satellite specifically designed to monitor the planet for methane leaks.

And that’s just one well. According to the Energy Information Administration, there are 991,000 oil and natural gas wells in the United States, in addition to an estimated 80,000 conventional oil and gas wells and about 10,651 active unconventional gas wells in Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

Groups like the Marcellus Shale Coalition can make statements about fracked gas enhancing our environment because, compared to coal, fracked gas is a cleaner option. It's true fracked gas burns much cleaner than coal and produces only about half the carbon dioxide than coal does.

That one fact, however, doesn’t give the industry license to peddle its product as safe or clean. Carbon dioxide isn’t the only greenhouse gas destroying our climate, and burning fossil fuels for electricity isn’t the only way for greenhouse gases to enter the atmosphere. 

What about the tons and tons of methane that escape undetected from the hundreds of thousands of oil and gas wells across the country? What about the health effects of living next to natural gas infrastructure that pollutes our air and water?

New rules and regulations are advancing in Pennsylvania—the country’s second-largest natural gas producer—to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds from oil and gas operations statewide. It’s been estimated the regulations could help cut methane emissions by about 75,000 tons a year.

If this rule is enacted, it could make the gas and petrochemical industries marginally cleaner, but it most certainly will not make them clean. “Cleaner than coal” does not mean natural gas is clean or sustainable. It is neither, and propagating that narrative is intentional misdirection that fails to tell the entire story.

In the past two weeks, we’ve been presented with evidence that lifespans in western Pennsylvania are being cut short because of the fracked gas industry, while we were also presented with evidence that 60 kilotons of methane leaked into the atmosphere as part of a single incident.

Does that sound like an industry that is enhancing our environment and improving our air quality?

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