Looking for facts on air quality in Pa.? Read the (whole) report

E&E News featured a story (subs. req’d) this week that paints an alarming picture with respect to air emissions in Pennsylvania. The article uses data from the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and a recent study by the RAND Corporation to suggest shale development is emitting compounds linked to respiratory problems and even premature death. It’s an interesting tale. And an inaccurate one, thankfully — disproven by the same data that’s cited in the story.

Truth is, according to the report, emissions from oil and gas development account for less than one percent of most emissions statewide. Also important: increased natural gas use has actually lowered emissions in the Commonwealth, including in counties where shale development is taking place. Perhaps that’s why the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reported the same story under the headline “State, private data say gas industry creates only fraction of state’s air pollution.”

Unfortunately, E&E News overlooked all of that data, focusing (exclusively) instead on making the case that even the mere presence of any compound that might be emitted during shale development must imply a causal link to health problems.  Luckily, the picture is a lot clearer when the information is presented in a more objective light — good news for a state where natural gas development ushered in over $11.2 billion in economic activity in 2010 alone and has helped support over 200,000 jobs – many of which had an annual wage that exceeds the state’s average by $41,000.

Of course, these reports don’t exactly represent the first time the issue of air quality has been studied in Pennsylvania. Previous reviews were conducted by DEP in 2011, for instance, under then Democratic governor Ed Rendell. As part of that research, DEP conducted ambient air quality testing in each corner of the state where Marcellus operations were taking place, with the agency reporting in the end that it “did not identify concentrations of any compound that would likely trigger air-related health issues associated with Marcellus Shale drilling activities.” In addition, the reviews “did not detect concentrations above the National Ambient Air Quality Standards at any of the sampling sites.”

But E&E News doesn’t cite any of that. Nor does it include any mention of a key passage from page seven of the “leaked” emissions inventory document from DEP cited in the story. Here’s what that had to say:

“Emissions from point sources have decreased since the last complete emissions inventory was developed for 2008.  The following table shows the emissions have decreased as a result of the installations of control equipment on the electric generating units as well as the conversion to natural gas.”  (emphasis added)

 How big was that decline in emissions? This chart – also ignored by E&E – is included in DEP’s report:

So, in other words, natural gas helped reduce the level of air pollutants over the past four years, including carbon monoxide (CO) by 8,400 tons, nitrogen oxide (NOx) by over 43,000 tons, particulate matter by 8,000 tons, sulfur oxides by over 511,000 tons and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) by over 4,000 tons. All of this represents a great success for Pennsylvania’s air quality – and it hinged on the increased use of natural gas in the state, which was of course made possibly by responsible shale development.

The good news doesn’t end there. A review of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s “2008 Ambient Air Quality Monitoring and Emissions Trends Reports” notes this downward trend is even deeper for VOCs and sulfur dioxide (SO2).  Specifically, the report notes that many of the counties where shale development took place – including Bradford and Washington counties – saw significant declines in emissions from 2004-2008. Over this time period, VOCs and SO2 in Bradford County decreased by 162 tons and 130 tons respectively, while Washington County saw a decrease of 11 tons and 1,340 tons.

What’s also worth noting – and again, something that is carefully avoided in any detail by E&E News – is that just last week, PA DEP announced new permitting requirements that will further reduce emissions from natural gas distribution systems and wellpads. When implemented, DEP’s tightened regulations governing compressor station emissions are expected to reduce emissions levels even further, including: an expected 90 percent reduction in NOx; an 87.5 percent reduction in CO and a 90 percent reduction in VOCs (see chart below).

So, in the end, it turns out the documents reveal a success story worth highlighting. Namely that natural gas development accounts for less than 1% of most sources of air pollution in Pennsylvania and has reduced the state’s harmful emissions by over 574,400 tons while providing significant economic benefits for residents from McKeesport to Montrose.  That’s good news for the Keystone State that’s only been made possible thanks to the safe and responsible development of the Marcellus Shale.

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