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Study: No Health Concerns Associated with Barnett Shale Development

Last week, the Houston based ToxStrategies released the first long-term study evaluating emissions from the Barnett Shale in Texas, which – using data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – concluded that there is no health concern associated with shale development. From the report’s summary:

“In this current study, more than 4.6 million data points (representing data from seven monitors at six locations, up to 105 VOCs/monitor, and periods of record dating back to 2000) were evaluated. Measured air concentrations were compared to federal and state health-based air comparison values (HBACVs) to assess potential acute and chronic health effects. None of the measured VOC concentrations exceeded applicable acute HBACVs. Only one chemical (1,2-dibromoethane) exceeded its applicable chronic HBACV, but it is not known to be associated with shale gas production activities. Annual average concentrations were also evaluated in deterministic and probabilistic risk assessments and all risks/hazards were below levels of concern. The analyses demonstrate that, for the extensive number of VOCs measured, shale gas production activities have not resulted in community-wide exposures to those VOCs at levels that would pose a health concern. With the high density of active wells in this region, these findings may be useful for understanding potential health risks in other shale play regions” (p. 832).

While volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were found, they were not at concentrations high enough to be considered a threat to public health.  That’s a point that anti-fracking groups can never be honest about: they throw around terms like “benzene” and “cancer” trying to make people believe that the mere presence of any compound is grounds for inciting a public health scare. In reality, regulators and health experts have worked for decades to establish thresholds that determine allowable levels over time.  Americans are exposed to a variety of compounds every day simply by living in a city or by getting into their cars, but for the most part, the levels are well below the thresholds of what would pose a health concern.

Naturally, activists didn’t like the results of this study (even though they always claim to be the owners of “the science” on this issue). They have begun waving their arms that the study was funded by the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, as Bruce Baizel of Earthworks recently did. Baizel said it was flawed because it used “general air quality data collected by someone else.”  That’s true, and that “someone else” happens to be the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the agency whose job is to ensure that Texans are breathing clean air. TCEQ also operates the most comprehensive set of air monitors in the Barnett Shale, so its data are valuable for such an assessment, though they clearly contradict what Earthworks wants the public to believe.

The value of TCEQ’s data is also described in the report:

“First, the Barnett Shale is the largest and most productive onshore shale gas field in North America. It spans approximately 5000 square miles across 24 counties, and has approximately 15,870 producing shale gaswells (as of the end of 2011) (BSEEC, 2012). Second, the air monitoring network that is currently in operation in the Barnett Shale area is extensive — including seven monitors in six different locations that represent areas where the general public could potentially be exposed, different types of monitors including a number of automated gas chromatographs (autoGCs) that run continuously, and the measurement of more than 100 chemicals at each monitor. Third, the air monitors in the Barnett Shale have been in place since the early 2000s, making it possible to look at the relationship between changes in air concentrations across time relative to the exponential increase in shale gas wells in the region. And fourth, the air monitoring network has monitoring sites in areas of both richer (“wet”) and dry gas regions of the Barnett Shale. This is important as air emissions of VOCs are generally greater in rich/richer (wet) gas areas; therefore the diversity of monitor locations within the Barnett Shale provides data representing the spectrum of air emissions from different shale gas regions” (p. 833).

Of note: The results of this long-term study are very much in line with numerous short term studies, including one done in 2010 by TCEQ, which found that concentrations of VOCs in the Barnett were not at levels that would pose health concerns.  The ToxStrategies study also mentions that the best tool for assessing actual exposure is biomonitoring because it measures the chemicals present in someone’s body.  As EID has noted on many occasions, such a study has already been conducted by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS), and it found no levels of chemicals of concern for public health.  ToxStrategies mentions that report, noting that the combination of data

“provide further evidence that individuals living in communities with extensive shale gas production activities are not being exposed to excessive levels of VOCs.” (p. 841)

The ToxStrategies report (as well as the DSHS and prior TECEQ studies) were done in response to groups like Earthworks, who claim (typically to the press, first and foremost) that shale development poses a dire threat.  We can’t help but notice a pattern emerging: Anti-hydraulic fracturing activists scream loudly about the health impacts of air emissions. Regulators then expend limited public resources to investigate the situation. The regulators then find that there are no public health concerns.

Studies by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection have all looked into activists’ claims and found that hydraulic fracturing does not pose a credible threat to air quality or public health.  In fact, Pennsylvania’s DEP found that over 500 million tons of emissions have actually been removed from the Commonwealth’s air thanks to the increased use of natural gas, while the American Lung Associated gave eight North Dakota counties — including several that are leading the state in Bakken oil production — high marks for air quality.

Critics will continue to beat the drum that the study was funded by BSEEC and therefore cannot be trusted (even as they find anti-fracking foundations to fund their own “studies,” and without irony). But the bigger story here is that this latest report helps confirm what other credible analysis have already concluded: responsible shale development is protective of public health.

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