Contrary to PSR claims, fracking is reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping mitigate climate change
By Seth Whitehead, EnergyInDepth
Just in time for the U.S. Senate’s impending vote on repealing the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) methane rule, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR) has churned out a repackaging of debunked anti-fracking studies and talking points into a new “report.”
Notably, PSR intentionally conflates methane with natural gas production as a whole in an attempt to make its “report” relevant to the current methane debate, hoping to garner a few headlines in the process,
“There are compelling reasons to question the use of natural gas (methane), given the risks it poses to human health. This report summarizes recent scientific findings that document methane’s implications for health. Methane extraction, especially by means of high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking), releases methane and dangerous toxic substances into the water and air…”
Ironically PSR is releasing this report just as Colorado health officials have put out a new report finding a “low risk of harmful health effects from combined exposure to all substances during oil and gas development.”
Considering Physicians for Social Responsibility is funded by the anti-fracking Park Foundation and has a stated goal of banning fracking, the claims made in this report are not surprising. But its latest attempt to “give natural gas a black eye” doesn’t even qualify as a punch considering its ridiculous claims don’t stand up to scrutiny.
Let’s have a look.
PSR CLAIM: “U.S. methane emissions have increased by more than 30 percent over the past decade.”
FACT: No they haven’t. The latest draft of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Greenhouse Gas Inventory (GHGI) shows that overall U.S. methane emissions have actually declined 4.4 percent since 2005, as the above chart from the GHGI illustrates.
These reductions have come as natural gas production has increased 50 percent and petroleum production has increased 81 percent during that same timespan, so PSR’s claim that methane emissions have increased 30 percent is absolutely ridiculous. Speaking of ridiculous…
PSR CLAIM: “In early 2016 the EPA revised upwards its estimates of life cycle methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, considered together, to 9.3 percent.”
FACT: No. Just, no. The EPA estimates methane emissions from natural gas systems is just 1.4 percent, which falls in line with numerous other reputable studies — including several spearheaded by the Environmental Defense Fund.
As the above chart illustrates, this is well below the 3.2 percent leakage rate that PSR (and the scientific community in general) agrees is the threshold for natural gas to maintain its climate benefit over coal. From the PSR report,
“It was estimated in 2012 that the climate benefit of switching from coal-fired to gas-fired power plants can be achieved only if total natural gas leakage is below a threshold of 3.2 percent.”
But the report goes on to claim,
“… To achieve those rates, the natural gas industry would have to attain far greater levels of methane capture, leak repair, and phase-out of blowdowns, flaring and other methane-emitting techniques than are now practiced.”
The only way to support the latter argument is to drastically exaggerate the current methane leakage rate, which PSR does to a remarkably excessive degree.
This is a patently irresponsible tactic, and even former President Obama has put methane leakage from natural gas systems into proper context, emphasizing that the leakage rates PSR suggests are not occurring and that the current actual leakage rates do not “erase” the climate benefits of natural gas, stating,
“Although methane emissions from natural gas production are a serious concern, firms have an economic incentive over the long term to put in place waste-reducing measures consistent with standards my Administration has put in place, and states will continue making important progress toward addressing this issue, irrespective of near-term federal policy.”
PSR CLAIM: “Fracking releases toxic substances not only into the water but also into the air. One of the most dangerous is particulate matter, which causes or contributes to lung diseases like COPD and lung cancer, heart effects including heart attack and congestive heart failure, and ischemic stroke.”
FACT: Increased natural gas use is the No. 1 reason criteria pollutants such as particulate matter, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide are all dramatically decreasing in the U.S., as the following EID chart illustrates.
According to the latest EPA data (2013), U.S. sulfur dioxide emissions have decreased 68 percent since 2005, while fine particulate matter emissions are down 60 percent and nitrogen oxide emissions are down 38 percent.
The reason? Electric power plants have traditionally been the top emitter of the these three most dangerous criteria pollutants, and natural gas use for electrical generation has increased 78 percent (21 percent to 34 percent) since 2005 and has overtaken coal as the top fuel source for electrical generation. Natural gas emits about one-fifth the nitrogen oxide as coal and virtually no sulfur dioxide.
This is significant, considering most particles form in the atmosphere as a result of complex reactions of chemicals such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. So, contrary to PSR’s claims, natural gas has played a huge role dramatically reducing particulate pollution, which a 2013 report authored by Stanford physicist Richard Muller noted is “killing over three million people each year, primarily in countries like India and China” and “kills more people per year than AIDS, malaria, diabetes or tuberculosis. ”
PSR CLAIM: “A study by the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Health documented dangerous airborne levels of benzene near hydraulic fracturing operations as well as elevated risks of cancer for residents living within a half-mile of a drilling site.”
FACT: Of all the thoroughly debunked studies listed in this report, the inclusion of this thoroughly discredited 2012 report by noted anti-fracking researcher Lisa McKenzie takes the cake.
Not only has EID debunked this study — pointing out it exaggerated emissions from well development by at least 10 times, failed to take into account exhaust fumes from a major interstate highway less than a mile away, and failed to note the cancer risk detected was not above the national average, just to name a few major flaws —Garfield County environmental health chief Jim Rada also disavowed the paper for its “significant” data limitations.
“I had no knowledge of what she was studying, or her methods, or the implications of her work.” Rada said. “We are not in violation on ambient air quality standards.”
“We didn’t ask them to do this paper. They were not sanctioned by the county, or paid by the county to do this paper.”
Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) Chief Medical Officer Larry Wolk has twice rebuked McKenzie’s work for being misleading, including a recent paper attempting to link fracking to childhood leukemia,
“[t]his study’s conclusions are misleading in that the study questions a possible association between oil and gas operations and childhood leukemia; it does not prove or establish such a connection…”
Wolk also said of a 2014 McKenzie-led report attempting to link oil and gas development to birth defects, the researchers used “miniscule” statistical differences to claim some kind of connection — a connection which public health officials rejected,
“[W]e disagree with many of the specific associations … [and] a reader of the study could easily be misled to become overly concerned.”
In a report chock full of thoroughly debunked activist research, the inclusion of McKenzie’s thoroughly discredited work is the most glaring example.
PSR CLAIM: “Where people are exposed to fracking fluids but disclosure of the chemicals involved is not required, health professionals may have to guess at toxicity (of fracking fluid), thus complicating or delaying treatment.”
FACT: This is simply not true. The federal Community Right-to-Know Act requires operators and chemical manufacturers to submit and regularly update detailed Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) and provide them to first-responders and other emergency personnel in case of an on-site accident. In the rare cases where exposure occurs, these comprehensive MSDS are provided to the necessary parties.
PSR CLAIM: “Fracking operations consume and contaminate enormous quantities of water.”
FACT: The EPA’s recent final drinking water report directly refutes both of these claims.
Former EPA Deputy Assistant Administrator Thomas Burke has confirmed that EPA’s draft report conclusion of “no widespread, systemic impacts,” to water from fracking has not changed, as he recently told CBS This Morning that “the overall incidence of impacts is low.”
The EPA’s final report also rejects anti-fracking groups’ oft-repeated claim that shale development is rapidly depleting water resources, finding fracturing technology only accounts for a small percentage of overall water use.
“Hydraulic fracturing generally uses and consumes a relatively small percentage of water when compared to total water use, water consumption, and water availability at the national, state, and county scale.”
PSR CLAIM: “Some of the chemical-water fracking mixture routinely remains underground, where it can migrate into underground water supplies.”
FACT: The scientific community agrees that it is implausible for fracking fluids to migrate from depth, which is not surprising considering that the EPA’s final fracking groundwater report finds that the median depth fracking takes place is more than 8,000 feet.
A 2015 study conducted by Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences, Yale University, 2015 (Drollette et al.) notes: “We found no evidence for direct communication with shallow drinking water wells due to upward migration from shale horizons.”
A Groundwater and Geophysical Research Letters (Flewelling et al.) conducted in 2013 found: “It is not physically plausible for induced fractures to create a hydraulic connection between deep black shale and other tight formations to overlying potable aquifers, based on the limited amount of height growth at depth and the rotation of the last principal stress to the vertical direction at shallow depths.”
Even E&E News recently noted,“There are few, if any, examples of the specific practice of hydraulic fracturing fluid rising through rock to contaminate groundwater…”
Not only does the recently released report by Colorado health officials directly refute this report’s claims that natural gas development adversely effects health, there is actually ample evidence that fracking improves public health.
Furthermore, contrary to the PSR reports claims, fracking is reducing greenhouse gas emissions and helping to mitigate climate change. Even the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has been called the “gold standard” by green groups, made it clear in a 2014 assessment that it’s largely because of hydraulic fracturing and natural gas that the United States has been able to reduce its GHG emissions dramatically:
“A key development since AR4 is the rapid deployment of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling technologies, which has increased and diversified the gas supply… this is an important reason for a reduction of GHG emissions in the United States.” (Ch. 7, p. 527)
The latest EPA data shows overall U.S. GHG emissions have fallen 2.2 percent since 2014 and overall CO2 emissions have dropped 11.7 percent from 2005.
It is for these reasons that we are already on pace to meet our Paris commitment of cutting carbon emission levels between 26 percent and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025. In fact, according to the American Petroleum Institutes (API) 2017 State of American Energy report, the United States is already one-third of the way to that goal thanks in large part to increased natural gas use.