Data doesn’t support claim Marcellus natural gas production is increasing asthma issues

Clean air council, asthma claims

No context on how emission levels fit into state’s overall air quality

Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council (CAC) plans to hold a rally in Harrisburg this week asking Gov. Tom Wolf to impose more emissions regulations on the oil and gas industry.

And not surprisingly, CAC will opt to use asthma misinformation to make its case rather than the facts —something Energy In Depth and even the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been calling them out on for years.

In fact, contrary to CAC’s claims, Acting Secretary Patrick McDonnell notes in DEP’s most recent inventory that,

“Although the reported emissions from the natural gas sector increased in 2014, overall our air quality continues to improve due to emissions reductions from other point sources such as electric generating units. Between 2011 and 2014, NOx and SO2 emissions from electric generating units have decreased by 18 percent (27,246 tons per year) and 17 percent (54,973 tons per year), respectively.”

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Here’s a look at the rhetoric CAC pushed out in an email last week ahead of the rally, followed by the facts:

Fact: Asthma hospitalization rates are improving across the state — even in areas with significant Marcellus development and in Philadelphia.

Asthma is no laughing matter — especially when children are the ones suffering from it. But one thing in particular stands out from the map CAC shared in its solicitation email attacking Pennsylvania’s gas industry: the highest rates of asthma attacks are occurring in counties with no Marcellus development.

Further, what this map doesn’t show is that the rates of asthma hospitalizations across the state have been decreasing even as Marcellus production has skyrocketed.

The following EID chart featuring data from the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH) illustrates this.

Even in Philadelphia County — where DOH data show rates of asthma hospitalizations are far above the state’s rates as a whole— asthma hospitalization rates have been decreasing since Marcellus development began.

In fact, according to the DOH data, the rate for hospitalizations caused by asthma in Philadelphia County fell 26 per cent since 2003, when there were no Marcellus wells in the state.

Fact: Methane is not a major cause of ozone and Pennsylvania is reducing the emissions that are major contributors to smog formation

CAC’s statement that “over 30,000 Pennsylvania children per year will suffer asthma attacks due to ozone from this industry” is patently misleading.

Methane is not a major precursor to ground-level ozone, and as McDonnell noted in last year’s inventory, the increased use of natural gas – most of which is developed right here in the Marcellus – is significantly reducing emissions of themost prominent ground-level ozone precursor, nitrogen oxide.

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“Between 2011 and 2014, NOx and SO2 emissions from electric generating units have decreased by 18 per cent (27,246 tons per year) and 17 percent (54,973 tons per year), respectively.”

And as the EPA explains,

“Ground level or ‘bad’ ozone is not emitted directly into the air, but is created by chemical reactions between oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the presence of sunlight…”

Natural gas emits about one-fifth the nitrogen oxide as coal.

Considering natural gas use for electrical generation has increased significantly in recent years in Pennsylvania, it’s no wonder why NOx emissions have dropped in the state.

And this trend has also been seen across the country, as natural gas use for electrical generation has increased 78 percent (21 per cent to 34 per cent) since 2005 and has overtaken coal as the top fuel source for electrical generation, helping to bring down NOx emissions 38 per cent in that time span.

Contrary to the messaging being spread by CAC, and as the following EID graphic illustrates, NOx and other harmful emissions have declined significantly as natural gas use for electric generation has ramped up.

Fact: The “self-reported data” CAC refers to has yet to be released and was given no context in the article or PennFuture’s press release.

The “self-reported” data the email is referring to is from the DEP’s annual air emissions inventory for unconventional development in the state.

But this data has yet to be released by the DEP, and the only information given by PennFuture is that, “between 2014 and 2015, methane emissions rose more than 20 percent.” But in addition to giving an actual figure for the 2015 emissions levels, it’s also missing all of the context DEP usually includes in its annual report.

For instance, we don’t know how many facilities are reporting this year. Each year since the reporting began in 2011, DEP has increased the number of facilities that are included in the inventory.

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For example, in the 2014 data there were 12 percent more midstream (pipeline, compressor stations, etc.) facilities reporting than in 2013.

So increases would be expected, especially when coupled with the tremendous growth in production the industry experienced since 2011.

There’s also no context given for how this increase compares with the duration of development.

In 2014, methane emissions increased one per cent since 2013, but still represented a 12 per cent decrease since methane reporting began in 2012.

Nor is there any context for how these emission levels fit into the state’s overall air quality.


There are many factors that can trigger asthma attacks, according to DOH.

While outdoor air quality is a factor, so is everything from fluctuations in weather or emotions of the individual to cockroaches or second hand smoke. And if anything, data show shale gas development has reduced asthma attacks rather than exacerbated them.