By Poune Saberi, M.D. - Op-ed
July 17, 2017
The extractive gas industry fails Pennsylvania communities in the most fundamental ways. What may not be obvious is that elected officials facilitate the destruction of the commonwealth. They prioritize the expansion of the drilling industry without regard to community health and welfare or safe, sustainable energy jobs in the renewable sector.
Our Pennsylvania government should immediately acknowledge the public health hazards shale gas extraction causes. Pennsylvania’s gas industry leaks a substantial amount of pollution into the air. The leaks include methane, which drives warmer weather that leads to more air pollution, and volatile organic compounds, some of which are carcinogenic. These harmful toxins are associated with asthma, heart and lung disease, threats to pregnancy and other hazards. It is up to the Department of Environmental Protection and our elected officials to hold the gas industry accountable and ensure we have health protections in place.
A recent study from Drexel University provides a snapshot of the impacts of drilling along the Marcellus pipelines. According to ground-level monitoring in Northeast Pennsylvania, which measures the concentrations of pollutants in the air that local residents breathe every day, there was a substantial increase in atmospheric methane levels from 2012 to 2015. In addition, data that oil and gas operators across the state have provided to the DEP show that methane emissions generated by the gas industry went up 28 percent between 2014 and 2015, outpacing the 12 percent increase in gas production.
Two years ago, I joined a team of researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Columbia University to study the association between gas and oil drilling and hospitalization rates in three Northeast Pennsylvania counties. The evidence supported a significant association between natural gas well density and inpatient prevalence rates, particularly in cardiology and neurology.
So, the industry certainly can do a better job of controlling methane pollution and the harmful pollutants that come with it. A variety of practical, cost-effective technologies and practices exist that could fix the most-significant sources of air pollution within the natural gas infrastructure — not only limiting emissions of methane, but other pollutants that leak alongside it that are likely to cause harm — such as benzene, a known cause of human leukemia.
Not all companies, however, are willing to make the investment to protect our communities. Additionally, the DEP is not moving quickly enough to adopt standards that would require these companies to develop practices that would provide needed protections. While other states have recognized the detrimental health impacts of shale gas infrastructure and put in place appropriate standards, it’s shocking that Gov. Tom Wolf has not done everything he can to ensure that Pennsylvania communities are protected against dangerous pollutants from the gas industry.
Pennsylvania should hold all gas companies accountable to the highest standards. The industry’s glaringly inevitable public health impacts can no longer be ignored. With full knowledge that shale gas operations leak pollutants that harm our health, Wolf has no excuse not to act.