Facts show natural gas improves public health, air quality

Almost two weeks ago, a study purportedly showing an association between fracking and asthma hospitalizations led to the Observer-Reporter headline “Fracking may worsen asthma for nearby residents, study says.” But a closer look shows this is yet another case of researchers associated with anti-fracking groups producing reports to get the desired headlines, while causing undue alarm for Pennsylvanians.

In fact, the researchers’ claim living near a shale well increases the chance of asthma hospitalizations is directly contradicted in a report by Pennsylvania’s Department of Health, which shows counties in shale areas have far lower rates of asthma hospitalizations than counties that have no shale gas production at all.

The Pennsylvania Department of Health report also shows, right about the time natural gas production increased in Pennsylvania from 2008 to 2012, there was a 24 percent decrease in inpatient hospitalizations attributable to asthma. Bottom line: If fracking causes asthma attacks, one would think hospitalizations would have skyrocketed and shale counties would have the highest rates. Instead, data shows exactly the opposite has occurred.

What’s more, recently released air quality data from the Fort Cherry School District in Washington County clearly demonstrates beyond any doubt natural-gas development has no harmful effect on local air quality. Using air-quality monitors placed at district buildings and homes near a natural gas well pad, researchers concluded that VOCs – compounds that contribute to asthma – were “well below health protective levels” and consistent with background levels measured prior to natural gas development.

So why do the authors of the study ignore this obvious data? Well, one of the researchers, Brian Schwartz, is a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute, which has called fracking a “virus” that is “destructive” and a “distraction” from “moving away from all fossil fuels in favor of clean energy.”

The same team of researchers also recently produced a report claiming pregnant women who lived near shale wells in Pennsylvania had higher premature birth rates. But when you actually look at the data, they show premature birth rates in shale counties were at or below the national rate, so they were in no way elevated. Unfortunately, with both of these studies, the media swallowed the conclusions whole, with little-to-no scrutiny.

The irony of these claims is that, far from posing a health risk, natural gas produced through fracking has allowed Pennsylvania to make enormous strides in improving air quality and public health. That’s because increased use of natural gas for electrical generation has helped drive down asthma-inducing pollutants in Pennsylvania such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide 73 percent and 23 percent, respectively.

As power plants shift to natural gas at a record pace, their emissions of major air pollutants have declined dramatically, according to data from federal agencies, while the air emissions inventory of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) shows the same has happened in our state as the shale boom has taken hold.

Even Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has acknowledged the shift to natural gas has “yielded significant public health benefits, avoiding thousands of premature deaths and more than 100,000 asthma attacks in 2015 alone.”

These facts – clearly showing natural gas improves air quality and is good for public health – probably explain why activist researchers continue to use misinformation to garner headlines that not only fail to reflect reality, but attempt to distract from it.

Nicole Jacobs is the Pennsylvania director for Energy In Depth, a research and education program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.