Appalachian Basin

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Misses the Mark on Air Quality Studies

A recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette took aim at a short term air quality study completed by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). The article claims new “revelations” show that the DEP’s air quality studies are inadequate.  State Representative Jesse White, who opposes shale development, even used the article to make the absurd claim that DEP’s study “was actually faked.”

Of course, the reality a far cry from the Post-Gazette’s reporting.  Let’s first take a look at the DEP’s air quality report referenced throughout the article – Southwestern Pennsylvania Marcellus Shale Short-Term Ambient Air Sampling Report:

“The scope of this short-term air monitoring study was limited to several natural gas facilities in Washington and Greene counties. Due to the limited scope and duration of the sampling and the limited number of sources and facilities sampled, the findings only represent conditions at the time of the sampling and do not represent a comprehensive study of emissions. While this short-term sampling effort does not address the cumulative impact of air emissions from natural gas operations in southwestern Pennsylvania, the sampling results will provide basic information on the type of pollutants emitted to the atmosphere during selected phases of gas extraction operations in the Marcellus Shale formation.

The project goals include the short-term screening of ambient air concentrations of target pollutants near certain of Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations, assessing preliminary air quality impacts and determining if there were any immediate health risks from ambient pollutant concentrations to nearby residents or communities. (p. ii; emphasis added)

As stated in the study’s title and executive summary, the report was intended to be a short term sampling, which does not represent a comprehensive study of emissions. Instead, the study helped give DEP a snapshot of emissions from natural gas operations to help inform a long term air quality study which started back in 2013 and will finish up this fall.

The DEP reiterated these facts in a letter sent to the Post-Gazette on October 27th by Acting Secretary of the DEP, Dana Aunskt, stating:

“As we have come to expect, Mr. Hopey’s story fails to provide proper context by characterizing DEP’s efforts using criteria that he is establishing after the fact. The story misleads readers into believing DEP performed essentially meaningless studies and has no grasp of the state of air quality in Pennsylvania. That is not true. Pennsylvania requires the control of air emissions at all natural gas operations through standards that represent best available technology and through comprehensive leak detection and repair programs for both methane and volatile organic compounds.” (emphasis added)

As mentioned earlier, the Obama Administration recently praised the DEP for their regulatory oversight and standards for natural gas development. Here’s a passage from the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations (STRONGER), which was formed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission (IOGCC):

DEP is commended for its hydraulic fracturing program. Standards for well casing and cementing require that the operator conduct those activities to control the well at all times, prevent migration of gas or other fluids into sources of fresh groundwater; and prevent pollution of fresh groundwater. In February of 2011, DEP amended its regulations regarding well design and construction requirements to provide enhanced casing and cementing standards for new well construction.” (p. 10-11; emphasis added)

Other Air Quality Studies

Besides the short term snapshot by the DEP, other air quality studies have been done not only here in the Commonwealth but in shale plays across the country. Let’s first take a look at a study commissioned by Fort Cherry school district in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Researchers took air samples prior to development and then continued sampling through the entire completions process – fracking, flaring, etc. From the report:

“The results of the fracking and flaring sampling periods were similar to the results obtained from the baseline monitoring period and likewise, did not show anything remarkable with respect to chemicals detected in the ambient air. When volatile compounds were detected, they were consistent with background levels measured at the school and in other areas in Washington County. Furthermore, a basic yet conservative screening level evaluation shows that the detected volatile compounds were below health-protective levels.” (p. 6; emphasis added)

Similar results were also found in West Virginia. In 2011, the West Virginia DEP conducted an air quality test, which monitored ambient and indoor air at a school approximately one mile from a Marcellus shale well pad before and after hydraulic fracturing operations. According to the report:

“Extremely low concentrations of carbonyls, volatile organic compounds, and hydrogen sulfide were detected, and no indications of public health impacts related to hydraulic fracturing were found.” (p. 7; emphasis added)

A quick hop across the country to Colorado, we again find similar results from air quality studies in areas of shale development. A report by the Colorado Department of Public Health concluded:

“The monitored concentrations of benzene, one of the major risk driving chemicals, are well within acceptable limits to protect public health, as determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The concentrations of various compounds are comparatively low and are   not likely to raise significant health issues of concern.” (p. i; emphasis added)

The facts speak for themselves regarding air quality and shale development. While it’s always important to conduct more studies and support further research, we also need to take a look what’s happening right now because of natural gas development.  Carbon emissions in the Commonwealth are expected to be lower in 2020 than in 2000 because of our shift to natural gas. According to the DEP, “Since 2008 cumulative air contaminant emissions across the state have continued to decline.” And this has all taken place while our economy here in Pennsylvania continues to thrive thanks to continued Marcellus Shale development.

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