Risks of Fracking Are “Real and Growing,” Report Warns

Yves here. Yet another bad effect of the conflict in the Middle East is many important stories are not getting the attention they deserve. For years, there have been alarming reports about fracking damage, like an increase in earthquakes in formerly seismically stable places like Oklahoma to tap water that ignites. The report, Fracking Science Compendium, ninth edition, is is an effort to catalogue and calibrate fracking health costs. Notably, it concludes that there is no way to conduct fracking without harming human health, either directly or indirectly.

By Dana Drugmand. Originally published at The New Lede

The human and environmental health risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, are “real and growing,” according to a new report synthesizing nearly a decade of research.

The Fracking Science Compendium, ninth edition was released in October by Concerned Health Professionals of New York and Physicians for Social Responsibility, and adds to evidence of numerous problems posed by natural gas extraction through fracking and fracking-associated infrastructure, from pipelines and compressor stations to appliances such as gas furnaces and stoves. The report compiles data and conclusions from thousands of studies, including peer-reviewed papers, investigative media reports and government documents.

“Our examination uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health directly or without imperiling climate stability upon which human health depends,” the report states.

For years, scientists have warned that living in close proximity to a fracking operation elevates one’s risk of developing various diseases or health impairments, and the science substantiating these exposure-based outcomes has only gotten more robust over the years.

“This rapidly growing body of hundreds of studies supports the conclusion that fracking causes a variety of adverse health effects in fetuses, infants, children, and adults,” Dr. Ted Schettler, a retired physician and public health expert and science director of the Science and Environmental Health Network, said in a webinar held this week to discuss the report results.

Schettler said several studies have found that children living near fracking sites are more likely to be diagnosed with cancer. One recent study for example found that children whose birth residence was within 2 kilometers of a fracking well were 2 to 3 times more likely to be diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia between the ages of 2 and 7 than children living further away.

Exposure to fracking and associated infrastructure has also been linked to preterm birth, reduced birth weight and birth defects, increases in asthma attacks and respiratory diseases, cancers, heart attacks and heart failure, and premature death, among other adverse outcomes. Fracking inherently uses and generates toxic chemicals, many of which are not required to be disclosed, and these toxins contaminate air, water, and soil. Benzene and formaldehyde, fine particles, nitrogen oxides, and chlorine are among some the chemicals that have been detected at drill sites.

Additionally, hazardous air pollution is infiltrating residential homes that are equipped with gas heating and appliances. Research shows that using gas stoves, especially in the absence of adequate ventilation, increases exposure to harmful chemicals such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, and benzene. About 1 in 8 cases of pediatric asthma in the US is attributable to exposure to indoor air pollution from gas stoves.

Kathy Nolan, a pediatrician and president of the New York chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, said people should replace gas stoves in their homes as a preventative health measure, similar to quitting smoking or prohibiting smoking indoors.

“We have to wean ourselves off of natural gas,” she said.

Transitioning away from gas is also necessary from a climate standpoint. Contrary to the narrative that gas is a cleaner substitute for coal or is a “bridge fuel” to renewable energy, more evidence is emerging indicating that this fossil fuel has a larger greenhouse gas footprint than was previously understood. The main reason for this is that natural gas is almost entirely composed of methane, which is itself a powerful greenhouse gas that is roughly 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timeframe. In fact, scientists estimate about 40% of current warming stems from atmospheric methane buildup.

“Shale gas has a greenhouse gas footprint that is certainly as big as that of coal,” said Robert Howarth, a professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University and a leading expert on the greenhouse gas impacts of fracked gas. In 2011 Howarth and colleagues published the first peer-reviewed analysis examining the climate consequences of fracked gas, finding that because there are methane leaks and venting throughout the lifecycle, shale gas is likely to be a significant contributor to global warming.

The peer-reviewed science since then has further validated their finding, and Howarth has now issued a new warning about the greenhouse gas emissions impact of liquified natural gas (LNG). In a paper just submitted for peer review, Howarth analyzed the emissions associated with LNG export operations, which involves supercooling gas to liquefy it and then transporting it on giant tankers. His analysis shows that LNG carried by older-style tankers amounts to a greenhouse gas footprint that is roughly 2.5 to 3 times worse than simply burning coal, and even with the newest tankers it is still almost 25% worse than coal.

“The science is quite clear. Liquified natural gas is a terrible idea from a climate standpoint,” Howarth said.

This new analysis comes at a critical time when the US is rapidly expanding its LNG export capacity, driven at least in part by energy security concerns and energy policy decisions stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The US currently has eight existing LNG export terminals with five more under construction and 17 others planned, 11 of which have received federal approval. Already the world’s number one exporter of natural gas and of liquified natural gas, the US is set to double its LNG export capacity over the next five years.

“When it comes to fracked gas, the United States is the fentanyl dealer to the planet,” biologist and senior scientist at the Science and Environmental Health Network Sandra Steingraber said during the briefing webinar.

Steingraber, who has been an instrumental contributor to the Compendium since its inception and referred to it as her life’s “most meaningful work,” emphasized that the detrimental impacts of this industry cannot be mitigated through existing regulations or controls.

“The problems with fracking, both for our health and for our climate, are intractable and are not fixable through any regulatory framework,” she said. “In this, fracking resembles lead paint or indoor smoking. No rules or regulations can make these practices safe.”

The only meaningful solution, the Compendium contends, is a comprehensive ban on fracking.

“The conclusion of the authors of the Compendium,” Nolan said, “is if you can’t do it safely, which we cannot, then we shouldn’t be doing it.”

(Featured photo by Brad Weaver on Unsplash.)

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Over a decade ago i attended a technical presentation on fracking and a prominent environmental scientist present was asked what he considered to be the biggest environmental problem from the process. His reply was that with appropriate regulation and technical fixes, the operational process of fracking was ‘manageable’. But what was not manageable would be the long term impacts of the fracking wells long after they are abandoned. He considered this the biggest and least soluble of all problems, not least because it is technically almost impossible to plug a deep well permanently with 100% certainty that it will not leak in the future into the atmosphere or into other geological layers.

    I’ve not seen anything to suggest that this has changed. Thankfully for most of the rest of the world, fracking never really succeeded for a variety of reasons – US geology seems uniquely perfect for the process to be financially viable. Billions have been invested in fracking from Poland to China to Argentina with little to show for it (although there is localised fracking used in the Middle East to feed existing gas reservoirs). But for the US and the climate, fracking will be seen as a truly disastrous detour from the necessary energy transition, leaving a legacy as terrible as 19th and 20th century coal mining.

    1. Telee

      Some years ago I found Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, a professor of engineering at Cornell who had a lifetime of experience in fossil fuel extraction. One of the points he highlighted, was leaking wells. In spite of industry claims, he shows that over time a growing percentage of abandoned well leak considerable amounts of methane. There are many many abandoned wells due to the short productive lifespan of the wells. He also considers the impact on water and other negative externalities. He is still on YouTube.

    2. Ignacio

      Following the most unsustainable pathway as fracking very much looks like seems unwise. If we want to play blame game a big part of it is almost certainly related with the history of oil development in the US. A long one In black, white and greys. I saw a film recently on this whose title I cannot remember with Daniel Day-Lewis which, if realistic, shows part of it.

    3. rjs

      PK: i hadn’t given it much thought, but he’s certainly right…if you powder the bedrock a couple hundred feet on all sides of a 2 mile long horizontal tunnel 15,000 feet below the surface, there’s no way to put that back together again…

  2. John R Moffett

    I saw this report last month. It is just about what you would expect from a process of fracturing rocks at depth, where you can expect interactions with the aquifer system. It’s like shitting on your dinner table as everyone gathers around for a meal. Virtually all manufacturing and mining activities are done on the cheap, so this would be the expected outcome. The external costs of business are always dismissed as they reduce profits. So… business as usual.

  3. iread

    Amen to PK and JM. And isn’t it curious that the aquifer issue isn’t mentioned here at all. Nor exactly what the proprietary ingredients of these deep injections include, radioactive waste being yet another byproduct if I recall correctly. Perhaps I need to read the whole report, but I can already hear myself arguing with those deplorable old ladies at the library about climate change, farm wives and staunch Trump partisans all, yet they convinced me that CO2 may not be the driver, the sun is I decided as I read, and further warming may precede, not follow, CO2. So here I sit on my back bench precautionary principle in one hand, tinfoil hat in the other, while this report commendable as it clearly is, reads to me rather as effective as say, a recent report of some Gulf States.

    1. Karl

      …isn’t it curious that the aquifer issue isn’t mentioned here at all.

      It’s implied by all the references to cancer clusters near fracked wells and in this quote:

      Fracking inherently uses and generates toxic chemicals, many of which are not required to be disclosed, and these toxins contaminate air, water, and soil.

  4. NYMutza

    The national motto for the United States is and has always been “Profits Above All Else”. The whole idea of the United States has been a huge mistake. The British should have ruthlessly crushed the rebellion.

    1. Karl

      You are too admiring of the British. Look at Canada and their environmental policies. Not sure if things would have been any better if the Spanish ruled, e.g. considering Mexico’s example. Further afield, look at the Chinese and Russians, who have even fewer environmental controls. “Profits above all else” seems universal.

    2. JonnyJames

      Sorry, you seem to be ignorant of the history of the British Empire. The US is the offspring of the British Empire, we write/speak English, not German, not Chinese, not Russian ffs. The “five eyes” countries are the new version of what the French call “the Anglo-Saxons” the English-speaking offspring of the Empire now lead from Washington instead of London. The US/UK are in lockstep on most policies, NZ, Aus, and Canada are vassals, like Europe, and do what they are told.

    3. Catchymango

      someone on twitter described the united states as a missile that was launched in 1776 into the future to destroy us all, and damn if fracking doesn’t illustrate that perfectly. This should have the cultural footprint that Chernobyl has, but instead its relegated to a niche environmental issue on the national agenda. Scandalous.

  5. danf51

    ““Our examination uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health directly or without imperiling climate stability upon which human health depends,”

    The key phrase in this oddly worded sentence is “no evidence”

    I have lived for 30 years in the midst of a large fracking region that mostly produces Natural gas. None of the presumed health or environmental effects the alarmist claim are present. Regulation is necessary which occurs. This is not to say that everything is perfect. No human activity is perfect and all human activity has impacts. The point is to minimize them and mitigate.

    Instead wringing your hands about fracking, perhaps people should focus on what their lives would be like without Natural gas and Hydro Carbon fuels. The reality is that without fuels most people thinking about what would happen would necessarily be dead pretty quickly. Maybe that is the real hope of the alarmists.


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