Pennsylvania Reports Air Pollution from Shale Gas Industry
Washington PA Observer Reporter
1 February 2013
By Michael Rubinkam
Pennsylvania’s shale gas industry was responsible for about 4
percent of the total air pollution emitted by all industrial
facilities in 2011, according to a first-ever inventory taken by
state environmental regulators.
Drillers and other companies involved in the extraction,
processing and transportation of natural gas from the Marcellus
Shale accounted for nearly 9 percent of the nitrogen oxides and
nearly 14 percent of the volatile organic compounds emitted from
all so-called “point” sources of pollution statewide, according to
the Department of Environmental Protection tally.
Under federal law, DEP is required to report statewide air
emissions to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency every three
years; 2011 was the first year in which DEP required the shale gas
industry to report emissions.
The survey does not take emissions from cars and trucks – the
single largest source of air pollution – into account.
Nevertheless, it provides an initial snapshot of air pollution
caused by drilling rigs, fracking operations, compressor stations
and other elements of natural gas production in Pennsylvania’s
vast Marcellus Shale formation.
The industry produced 16,542 tons of nitrogen oxides and 2,720
tons of volatile organic compounds in 2011, according to the
report. By comparison, power plants were a far bigger source of
air pollution, contributing 142,749 tons of nitrogen oxides and
far greater amounts of soot, carbon monoxide and other pollutants.
Nitrogen oxides are produced during combustion – primary culprits
are vehicle exhaust and electrical power plants – and can worsen
respiratory conditions like bronchitis and asthma. They also
combine with VOCs to form unhealthy ground-level ozone, or smog.
The drilling industry pointed to the numbers as evidence it is
having a small impact on air pollution. But some environmentalists
expressed concern Friday.
Kevin Stewart, a member of the DEP advisory committee, said he’s
concerned that shale gas will result in an increasing amount of
air pollution as more wells are drilled and fracked and more
processing plants, pipelines and compressor stations are built.
“Some people might be surprised at the numbers this relatively
early in the natural gas industry expansion,” said Stewart,
director of environmental health for the American Lung
Association’s mid-Atlantic chapter. “What, as a consequence,
should be done preemptively to make sure this doesn’t get out of
hand as an air pollution control problem?”
But Andrew Paterson, vice president of technical and regulatory
affairs at the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said the extraction
industry’s air emissions represent only one side of the pollution
ledger. Electrical utilities are switching from coal to
cleaner-burning natural gas, for example, enabling an overall
reduction in emissions, he said.
Indeed, the DEP report shows that statewide air emissions from
point sources like power plants plummeted between 2008 – when the
last inventory was taken – and 2011.
“When you look at the whole picture, you’re seeing a decline in
emissions,” he said Friday. “But even if you are only focused on
emissions from drilling and fracking, it’s still a very small
number when compared to other manmade emissions.”
A new study from RAND Corp. tries to quantify the economic impact
of drilling-related air pollution in Pennsylvania. The study,
released Thursday, estimated air pollution caused between $7.2
million and $32 million in health and environmental damages for
2011. By comparison, the study estimated a single coal-fired power
plant caused $75 million in damages in 2008.
But the study’s authors say the air impacts are nevertheless a
concern in heavily drilled regions of the state.
“When you compare the industry emissions to all the sources of
emissions we have in the state, you could say to yourself, ‘Who
cares?”’ said Aimee Curtright, one of the study’s co-authors. But
“if you’re downwind of a (natural-gas) compressor station, and
you’re a long way from the coal-fired power plant, what matters to
you and your health is the compressor station that’s upwind. It’s
a question of where you sit.”