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Oil and Gas Drilling Linked to Smog

Findings Could Further Complicate Push for More Drilling

Last month, yet another federal agency weighed in and highlighted new and striking concerns about the impact of oil and gas drilling — this time on air quality.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency that focuses on the condition of the oceans and the atmosphere, completed a study that measured air emissions, starting just outside Denver, Colorado, that may help explain smog problems across parts of the Western US.

Photo by Aaron GustafsonIn parts of Utah visibility has plunged to levels normally only seen during hot urban summers. At times
it's so bad that flights have to be diverted from Salt Lake City’s airport.

The federal scientists concluded that emissions from oil and gas drilling in the area, home to thousands of recently drilled wells, help explain the region's smog problem. They also found that airborne emissions from these drilling sites had been underestimated — by as much as half. The chemicals in some of these emissions — which are not just smog-forming but carcinogenic themselves — may be absorbed by the snow in the winter as temperatures fall at night and released as the day warms. The result: In parts of Utah visibility has plunged to levels normally only seen during hot urban summers, at times so bad that flights have had to be diverted from Salt Lake City’s airport.

This would be mind blowing if there wasn't already a precedent. Several years ago, Wyoming drew national attention for an extremely unusual problem. Rural parts of the state, which historically has attracted residents in part because of its impressive air quality, were grappling with an increasingly bad smog problem, so bad that levels were higher than in Houston or Los Angeles.

The NOAA's look at air emissions from drilling is part of a broader trend that relates to fracking, which according to the oil and gas industry is used in over 90 percent of wells nationally. Originally, most of the attention on fracking was focused on its potentially harmful impacts on drinking water. Now, more federal regulators, environmentalists, and scientists are taking note of air quality problems related to this drilling.

Members of Congress are joining in, and have started stepping up the pressure for the Environmental Protection Agency to expand its ongoing national study of hydraulic fracturing so that it doesn't just focus on drinking water impacts.

On Feb. 2, just before the NOAA study was made public, Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) and two of his colleguages sent a letter to the EPA, asking the agency to include a look at air emissions and human health impacts. NOAA's study will make it harder for the EPA to keep its national study narrowly focused on drinking water.

Further complicating matters is the growing realization that drilling for natural gas also carries dramatic global warming consequences. Natural gas itself is largely made of the potent greenhouse warming gas, methane. When it’s burned, natural gas emits about half as much of another greenhouse gas — carbon dioxide — as coal. But scientists from Cornell and the EPA have each drawn attention to raw methane leaks and releases during shale gas production. Information from the EPA released in May and July 2011 shows that the natural gas industry is the largest source of methane emissions in the US by far, contributing almost 40 percent of the total. In April, Cornell scientists Robert Howarth, Renee Santoro and Anthony Ingraffea concluded that, because of methane emissions, natural gas production may be worse in terms of climate change than burning coal.

This startling finding immediately drew fire from the natural gas industry and another team of academics, led by Lawrence Cathles, a professor in Cornell’s Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department, jumped into the fray.

The Cathles paper questioned the estimates in the Howarth team’s research, calling it “fatally flawed” (unheard-of language in a scientific paper, where the tradition is to soft-pedal even the most vehement criticism). After responding to the Cathles paper on a point-by-point basis, the Howarth team stood by its conclusions, but without direct measurements from the field, both sides were operating in the dark to some degree.

The debate about natural gas’s climate change impacts is pressing, scientists say. A paper  by Drew Shindell of NASA Goddard Space Institute and others published in Science in January 2012 predicts that unless emissions of methane and other materials such as soot are controlled, the planet will within the next 15 to 35 years warm sufficiently as to pose a major risk of reaching a tipping point:  runaway global warming from feedbacks in the climate system, such as melting of permafrost in the arctic and release of natural methane trapped there. And right now, as aging coal plants across the US are increasingly being retired, utility companies and policy-makers are making decisions that will determine what fuels will provide the nation’s electrical power in coming years.

NOAA’S recently released data corroborates Howarth and Ingraffea’s controversial findings about the amount of methane coming from drilling, and indicate that these Cornell researchers may have, if anything, even slightly underestimated the problem. After taking the first ever direct measurements of methane emissions from an unconventional gas field at the landscape scale, NOAA now estimates that roughly 4 percent of natural gas from wells is leaked or vented to the atmosphere. And that doesn't even include pipeline leaks. This means that the methane emissions from fracking are higher than previously predicted by the EPA and at the very high end of the estimates by Howarth and colleagues.

As President Obama and the field of Republican candidates attempt to outflank each other in proving who is the most pro-drilling, a mounting body of research suggests a need for a more considered, take-it-slow approach.

Sharon Kelly is a Philadelphia-based lawyer and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Legal Intelligencer.

Sharon Kelly
Sharon Kelly is a Philadelphia-based lawyer and freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Legal Intelligencer.

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