Hydraulic Fracturing: Air Joins Water as Point of Contention

By on April 10, 2012

by James A. Pardo and Brandon H. Barnes

The public and regulators alike continue to scrutinize the impact of hydraulic fracturing on water resources – e.g., possible contamination of drinking water; volume of water used; and disposal of used fracing wastewater.  These water issues have dominated the debate for some time, overshadowing concerns that some have raised about potential impacts from an air quality perspective. Recent events, however, indicate that air emissions are likely to become a fracing issue.

On April 3, Henry Waxman (D-CA) and Diana DeGette (D-CO) wrote to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson asking the agency to consider a recent Colorado School of Public Health (CSPH) study linking air emissions from hydraulic fracturing activities to increased risks of cancer and non-cancer illnesses.  The letter comes one day after EPA delayed publication of final rules for air emissions from oil and gas extraction activities to give itself time to review the more than 156,000 public comments submitted on the draft rules.

The CSPH study found that residents of Battlement Mesa who reside within 1/2 mile of a hydraulically fractured well have an increased risk of contracting illnesses due to volatile organic compounds (VOC) that drilling operations release into the air.  The study methodology and analysis have been criticized by stakeholder groups for using data gathered before enactment of stricter state air standards; for assuming that residents remain in town for 350 days per year, 24 hours per day, thus receiving 24-hour doses; and, for disregarding VOC contributions from local highway traffic.

The study was commissioned by Garfield County in 2010 at the request of Battlement Mesa residents, then decommissioned by the county in May 2011 after questions were raised by the County Department of Public Health.  CSPH scientists continued with the analysis on their own, and are scheduled to publish the results in an upcoming edition of the magazine, Science of the Total Environment.  Garfield County, however, disavows any connection to the study.

Battlement Mesa residents are part of what is widely considered the test case for class actions alleging harm from hydraulic fracturing.  The suit contends that residents have suffered health impacts from air and water contamination as a result of natural gas development at a well pad near the community, and stand to endure further environmental effects and diminution of property value because of plans to drill up to 200 additional wells within town limits..

The CSPH study follows a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA ) study on fracing emissions, reported in the Journal of Geophysical Research in February.  The NOAA study concluded that fugitive natural gas emissions from drilling operations ranged from 3 to 5 percent.  These findings were roughly in line with an earlier Howarth (Cornell University) study and were above industry reported levels. Critics of the industry quickly pointed to the study as evidence that fracing is making significant contributions to greenhouse gas emissions, invoking the results as a basis for increased federal regulation.

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