Fracking is bad for your health

Hydraulic fracturing is really bad for your health.

A stunning report has just been released by Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility that should be required reading by everyone with doubts about the safety of fracking technology, and unconvinced about the much-touted advantages of fracked natural gas over coal.

Titled a Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking, the report is a fully referenced compilation of the evidence outlining the risks and harms of hydraulic fracturing.  It weighs in at 266 pages with over 1100 footnote references.

But don’t be put off—it’s an easy read and definitely worth a close look.  You can download it here.

It’s not just fascinating stuff.  It’s frankly alarming.

Apart from the health impacts : air pollution, water contamination, radioactive releases, occupational health and safety hazards, noise pollution, earthquakes, flood risks, threats to agriculture and soils–to name just a few, it is the emissions of methane that is the most disturbing aspect if you know a bit about the impact of atmospheric methane on the warming climate.

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The report doesn’t have an executive summary, but an initial chapter on Emerging Trends sets the scene:

  • There is growing evidence that regulations are simply not capable of preventing harm;
  • Fracking and the disposal of fracking waste threaten drinking water;
  • Drilling and fracking contribute to toxic air pollution and smog (ground level ozone) at levels known to have health impacts;
  • Public health problems associated with drilling and fracking include poor birth outcomes, reproductive and respiratory impacts, cancer risks, and occupational health and safety problems;
  • Earthquakes are a proven consequence of drilling and fracking-related activities in many locations;
  • Fracking infrastructure poses serious potential exposure risks to those living nearby;
  • Drilling and fracking activities can bring naturally occurring radioactive materials to the surface.

The chapter on the climate system summarizes over 70 investigative articles and scientific peer-reviewed  papers from 2011 to late 2017, and exhaustively documents how fugitive methane releases from US drilling and fracking operations, storage, and processing are much higher than previously reported. Total methane emissions increased by more than 30% between 2002 and 2014, and global concentrations of methane are now growing faster in the atmosphere than at any other time in the past two decades.

The main sources of the gas are livestock, waste, wetlands and natural gas production and processing.  Which source is primarily responsible for the recent surge in methane emissions is a matter of some dispute–since all of these sources of methane are increasing. For example, the FAO reports that global livestock operations expanded from 1.3 billion head of cattle in 1994 to 1.5 billion in 2014 [1].

However, the report documents that satellite and ground measurements confirm that US methane emissions are responsible for 30 to 60 percent of the recent upsurge in global atmospheric methane concentrations—most of it coming from fugitive emissions from US oil and gas operations.

Considerable evidence points to fracking as driving greenhouse gas emissions skyward.  This includes the pattern of methane concentrations detected over areas of intense fracking activities; sharp increases in global methane that coincides with the advent of the American fracking boom, and documented incidents of large pulses of methane released from natural gas storage facilities [2].

Not to mention the occasional accident—such as the huge release of methane from the Aliso Canyon gas storage facility in southern California in October 2015 when, over a four-month period, over 100,000 tonnes of methane leaked into the air over the San Fernando Valley. This massive leak was equivalent of half a million cars driving for a year [3].

Warming up

The warming potential of the methane has been consistently undervalued by attributing to it a value of 28 compared to carbon dioxide, when its real impact is closer to 86 times the warming potential of CO2. The lower value is clearly incorrect when you consider that methane is constantly present in the atmosphere, and even though its residence time is only about 10 years, the gas is continually replenished by emissions from the sources cited above. With methane concentrations now at about 1850 parts per billion, this concentration is equivalent to an additional 160 ppm of carbon dioxide—a surcharge in terms of warming potential of 40 percent.

The overwhelming evidence collected and summarized in the Compendium leads to the incontrovertible conclusion that natural gas is not a ‘bridge’ to renewable energy.  Fracking is being touted as part of the solution to climate change—but in reality it is a significant part of the problem.

Shutting down coal, limiting fossil fuels to industrial uses where carbon capture and storage technologies can be employed, while simultaneously transitioning to wind and photovoltaic utility-scale power generation is the only, repeat only, way to drag global temperatures back down. This objective requires a massive shift to electric transportation—already underway but in need of much stronger financial incentives. As is so often the case, California leads the way.

The Compendium report concludes by categorically stating:

All together, findings to date from scientific, medical, and journalistic investigations combine to demonstrate that fracking poses significant threats to air, water, health, public safety, climate stability, seismic stability, community cohesion, and long term economic vitality…There is no evidence that fracking can operate without threatening public health directly or without imperiling climate stability upon which public health depends.

Physicians have been saying loudly for some time now that fossil fuels are not just a huge environmental problem—they are a global health hazard.

When your doctor tells you your health is in danger –you should listen.



Into the weeds…

[1] See: Surge in methane emissions threatens efforts to slow climate change

[2] See the Compendium page 171

[3] Compendium page 193

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