Huge Problem vs. No Risk
Lisa Jackson, current Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), recently discussed air pollution due to natural gas drilling during an interview with National Public Radio’s Michele Norris at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, June 28.
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“You are going to have huge problems where you never had them before,” she said. “There is a lot of activity around those wells and that has an impact on air quality – and we know it already.”
Jackson indicated that the EPA is currently reworking federal air quality regulations for the industry. (The Public Herald has requested a date to when these regulations can be expected.)
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issued a press release in May regarding an “air quality study near Marcellus Shale natural gas operations in Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan, and Tioga counties.” Eight sites were sampled over three five-day periods to determine if specific pollutants were a threat to anyones air quality in acute amounts.
According to the executive summary of the “Air Quality Study,” which can be reviewed on DEP’s Website, “more than 2,349 wells have been drilled” in Pennsylvania since 2008.
Throughout the summary, the air quality study is called a “sampling.”
“Due to the limited scope and duration of the sampling and the limited number of sources and facilities sampled, the findings only represent conditions at the time of the sampling and do not represent a comprehensive study of emissions.”
Still, DEP secretary Michael Krancer concluded in a press release that there were “no emission levels that would be of concern to the health of residents living and working near these operations.”
But living and working near natural gas operations, which have been found to increase air pollution in other states, is not a short-term experience.
As for cumulative studies, DEP’s Press liaison, Jamie Legenos wrote in an email July 1, “The Department is currently crafting a long-term air quality study based on these studies.
“The Department has not yet determined if the potential cumulative emissions of these pollutants from many natural gas exploration activities will result in violations of the health and welfare federal standards.”
Beyond the Shadow of Doubt
On an online editorial by Joe Osborne, Legal Director of Group Against Smog and Pollution, Dr. Conrad D. Volz, a Public Health Expert at the University of Pittsburgh, commented that DEP’s sampling “was not a risk assessment nor was it a study…Important pollutants were sampled at detection limits that were above health based standards…There is no reason DEP should have used language regarding ‘no emissions over health based standards’.”
The Environmental Working Group reported in March 2009 on regulation of the oil and gas industries and found that “as drilling has intensified over the past decade, federal environmental protections have dwindled.
“Unlike most other industries, oil and gas drillers enjoy waivers under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Superfund, the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act and the National Environmental Policy Act.”
Better Air for America, Just Not for You
According to Jackson’s interview with Aspen Daily News, the EPA is working on regulations to improve known air quality risks in areas of heavy natural gas drilling, such as Wyoming’s Sublette County and Utah’s Uintah Basin, where drilling has occurred for years and air pollution levels have become a risk to health.
But industry officials, like Marcellus Shale Coalition president Katherine Klaber, argued that the benefits of natural gas outweigh the costs. Klaber told National Public Radio that air pollution problems from natural gas operations exist “but certainly not at a point where the air impacts could possibly trump the benefits to this country’s air quality that comes from using this source…you can’t find a cleaner burning fossil fuel.”
The NPR author who interviewed Klaber, Elizabeth Shogren, wrote about the Judy family in southwestern Pennsylvania suffering from headaches, fatigue, dizziness, nausea and nosebleeds since a compressor station was built 700 feet from the family’s home. The Judys’ health issues echo reports by residents living in close proximity to natural gas drilling areas involved in hydrofracking:
- Wyoming - http://solveclimatenews.com/news/20100823/wyoming-survey-points-high-incidence-fracking-related-health-problems
- Colorado - http://www.gcmonitor.org/article.php?id=1339
- Texas – http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=120043996
- Pennsylvania - http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/s_741736.html?_s_icmp=NetworkHeadlines
Focus on Flaring
“Flaring” is a term used to describe the burning of natural gas from a well that has not yet been linked to a pipeline. When a well is “flared,”a huge flame lights up the sky, reaching higher than tree tops, accompanied by a noise similar to a 757 jet engine.
The sight and sound of a flaring well are quite intimidating, but the practice is not a risk to public health according to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP.
According to a short-term air quality report concluded by DEP in January 2011, elevated levels of “methane detected in the ambient air prior to the flaring (29.2 ppm maximum and 5.5 ppm average) was greater than concentrations detected during the flaring when the methane was being burned. Concentrations of carbon monoxide and ethylbenzene were also detected at the well site. Ethylbenzene is a component of gasoline and because the concentrations detected prior to and during the flaring were similar, its detection was most likely not related to the flaring.”
However, for those living near Marcellus natural gas well pads where wells are flared, light and noise pollution are powerful enough to cause sleepless deprevation. Even with both blinds and curtains, you can still see the flicker of the giant flame inside the house all hours of the night. Jim Harkins has one such operation bordering his property. The well site is less than 800 feet from his bedroom window. Whatever air pollutants are emitted from the drilling operations, flaring or not flaring, they are blown onto his property since the forest that once stood where the well pad now exists no longer blocks the prevailing winds.
So far the wells on the pad near the Harkins’ home has been flared three times, lasting a week or more each time.
Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission released a report on July 22, 2011 meant to influence updates to the state’s natural gas regulations. The recommendations outlined in the report to not include mitigation for the residential impacts of flaring.
Currently in Pennsylvania, a natural gas well can be drilled 200 feet from a home, business, school or hospital. The Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission report recommended an Increase [in] the minimum setback distance from a private water well from 200 feet to 500 feet anda minimum setback distance from a public water supply to 1,000 feet unless waived in writing by the owner or public water supply operator.
No recommendations for increasing the setback distance between gas operations and private or public property.
We interviewed Skip Louchs, who has been working on the Harkins’ property since before drilling started, to get another perspective on what’s been going on. Podcast to be uploaded in November.