New Working Paper Finds Expanded Use of Natural Gas Saves Lives

A new working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) examines the relationship between an increase in natural gas use and adult and elderly mortality rates. The study focuses on Turkey due to the fact that the country has experienced a large shift towards natural gas use in the last few decades. The researchers conclude,

The results indicated that the expansion of natural gas services has caused significant reductions in the both the adult and the elderly mortality rates.”

EID contacted one of the authors of the study, Erdal Tekin, professor of public policy at American University, to ask him what implications his work has for the United States where natural gas production and use for electricity generation is soaring.  Here’s what he had to say:

Energy In Depth: Your research suggests a link between increased natural gas use and positive health outcomes. Can you explain why those are connected?

Erdal Tekin: Compared with other fossil fuels, natural gas is much less pollutant. For example, it virtually emits no sulfur oxides and particulates, and releases about one-fifth of the nitrogen oxides emitted by coal. Therefore, we argue that any development that leads to a widespread displacement of coal by natural gas as a source of commercial and domestic fuel could reduce the average carbon intensity in the atmosphere, which would then improve health outcomes.

To demonstrate this argument, we focus on data from all of the 81 Turkish provinces, 71 of which have switched from a coal based fuel delivery system to natural gas over the last two decades. We show that when a natural gas network is deployed in a province, air quality improves compared to those provinces without an access to natural gas, and subsequently the rates of mortality go down for all age groups including infants, adults, and the elderly. Furthermore, we find that the mortality gains are primarily driven by reductions in cardio-respiratory deaths, which are more likely to be due to conditions caused or exacerbated by air pollution.

Energy In Depth: Your paper focuses on Turkey, but how do you see it informing what’s going on in the United States, where natural gas use for electricity generation is skyrocketing?

Erdal Tekin: We believe that our study provides credible evidence to demonstrate that widespread replacement of coal by natural gas as the primary source of fuel could improve public health by reducing the carbon intensity in the atmosphere.  We exploit a unique natural experiment from Turkey to reach this conclusion.

To the extent that the baseline air pollution levels are higher in Turkey than most places in the United States, one may argue that any potential improvements in air quality to be caused by a switch from coal to natural gas might be smaller in the Unites States than in Turkey.  However, there is no reason to think that the overall pattern in the relationship might differ much between the two contexts, especially for areas in the United States where there is widespread use of coal and the air quality is poor.

Energy In Depth: You suggest that the debate over natural gas and fracking needs to be broadened when assessing health outcomes. Can you elaborate on that point?

Erdal Tekin: It appears to me like the current debate over natural gas and fracking is limited in two ways. First, it mostly focuses on the technique of extraction of natural gas and its potential environmental effects, with little consideration about the relative merits over the use of natural gas as supposed to coal. Second, the current debate focuses mostly on the potential impacts on communities in and around areas where fracking activity takes place.

As a result of this narrow focus, the conclusions drawn from the current debate may provide an incomplete picture of the overall effect of an increase in supply of natural gas caused by fracking. For example, any fracking-induced decrease in the price of natural gas might potentially cause a reduction in coal consumption and concurrently improve the overall air quality.  The health impact from such a development might very well be a net benefit.  Until all of these positive externalities are fully assessed, the debate over the benefits and costs of fracking will not be settled.

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