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New York Times: Could Smog Shroud the Marcellus Shale’s Natural Gas Boom?

June 3, 2011

Public health advocates, researchers and environmentalists have been raising a hue and cry about severe air pollution from shale gas drilling for years.  Now the New York Times has begun sharing these serious concerns with the general public.  In a major story published Friday, May 27th, “Could Smog Shroud the Marcellus Shale’s Natural Gas Boom?”  reporter Gabriel Nelson (Greenwire) does a great job reporting on air pollution problems out west, and escalating risks back east.

Antelope graze near gas drilling rigs in this Jan 2010 photo in western Wyoming, where ozone levels in early March 2011 exceeded the worst days in major U.S. cities last year. (Source: AP Photo/Mead Gruver)

The story begins in a roundabout way, highlighting former PA DEP Secretary John Hanger’s tendency to minimize water contamination issues.  By first establishing Hanger’s undiminished, generally uncritical enthusiasm for gas drilling, the reporter succeeds in creating a certain shock value when even Hanger admits that air pollution from gas drilling could be a serious problem in the Northeast, potentially generating lawsuits “from New York, New Jersey, everywhere. From environmental groups. Maybe even from Pennsylvania state officials, trying to stop [the drilling].”

Nelson sums up gas drilling impacts on air in Utah and Wyoming:

“The Uintah Basin of northeastern Utah and the Green River Valley of southwestern Wyoming are sparsely populated areas…  But when thousands of new natural gas wells were drilled over the past decade, the result was some of the thickest smog in the United States.

In Sublette County, Wy., where 10,000 people live across an area the size of Connecticut, the pristine air of years past has proved stubbornly hard to restore.  When officials looked at air quality monitors several years ago, they discovered that emissions from drilling wells had made the air so dirty that it rivaled the worst summer days in Southern California.”

Then, after quoting the industry trade group Marcellus Shale Coalition President, Kathryn Klaber, blithely claiming that a single gas well has “virtually no impact on air quality,” Nelson turns to Texas.  Texas’ Barnett Shale drilling created such intense air pollution that EPA Region 6 Administrator Al Armendariz issued a report which

“found that the industry released more smog-forming emissions than all cars and trucks in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, which is flunking the federal air quality standards for ozone.”

Nelson points out that air impacts could be even worse for gas drilling in the Northeast:

“Eventually, the Marcellus Shale could dwarf those numbers. According to some estimates, it contains 500 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas, which would make it the world’s second largest gas field. Getting all that fuel out of the ground would take 100,000 wells, researchers at Penn State University say.”

While it omits mention of some of the health impacts associated with the dive air quality takes in gas drilling areas — the increase in asthma rates to 25% among children in Texas in heavy drilling areas, in particular; and reports of heavy nosebleeds, dizziness, respiratory distress, and worse — the reporting is strong and up to the moment regarding EPA’s failure to act:

“Some environmentalists want EPA to do an inventory of emissions from the Marcellus Shale, as it did with the Barnett Shale in preparation for new standards that it will propose this summer for larger oil and gas production facilities. The Philadelphia-based advocacy group Clean Air Council asked EPA Region 3 Administrator Shawn Garvin to intervene last week, complaining that drillers are exempt from most of Pennsylvania’s air permitting rules.”

Despite its thoroughness, Nelson’s article does not mention some sources of air pollution from gas drilling, in particular flaring — most gas drillers burn 100% of the methane which comes up during “stimulation” (fracking), instead of investing in the technology which would enable them to capture it — and volatile organic chemicals from flowback waste, which evaporate and contribute to hazardous air pollutants, ground level ozone, and smog.  But Nelson reports accurately and in detail the problem with the vast number of dirty diesel generators being used in shale gas drilling operations.  These old generators, considered to be “nonroad” engines, are unregulated:

‘Nonroads are the dirtiest of the dirty diesel engines right now,’ said Nichols, whose group [WildEarth Guardians] often challenges oil and gas drilling projects in the West. ‘Unless a company takes the initiative, they’re allowed to smoke as much as they want.’ “

In the end, with Nelson’s Greenwire article, the New York Times has done the public a tremendous service in shining a spotlight on smog from gas drilling in Wyoming, Utah, and Texas; and on the terrible prospect of rapidly escalating air pollution from dirty drilling in the northeast, which has too much air pollution to begin with.

But this public service is somewhat undermined by the tendency to allow John Hanger to go unchallenged when he makes misleading comments.  For example, Hanger is said to be critical of the Cornell study which shows shale gas drilling to be as bad as, or worse than, coal and oil in its greenhouse gas emissions.  But Professor Ingraffea, one of the study’s authors, has said Hanger did not read the peer-reviewed, published study, basing his public critique instead on a preliminary draft released prior to peer review and publication.  This is thin ice for Hanger to be skating on as an arbiter as what is “real” (air pollution) and what is not (water contamination, climate impacts).  Unfortunately, shale gas drilling has negative impacts on air, water, earth and climate, and they are all real.

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