Big Oil and Gas have Big Impacts to Health, Air, Water and Climate

I was invited this week to offer my comments at a press conference on a study by CNA, a nonprofit research and analysis organization located in Arlington, VA on the expected impacts of shale gas development in the Delaware River Basin. This study was unique in that it looks across a broad range of impacts, uses a common basis of well and well pad influences, and derives projections based on actual past production data in the Marcellus and the key drivers of that production.

As a scientist and licensed professional engineer, I want to take a moment, and this platform at Earthworks, to connect the results of this study focused on the Delaware River Basin to a growing body of scientific and public health results at both the regional and global scales of concern. 

In 2008 when Earthworks took its first trip to the Delaware basin, and met with Delaware Riverkeeper and other advocates for preserving that watershed from shale gas development, there were only six (6) peer-reviewed science, engineering, and public health publications on the actual impacts of shale gas development worldwide. Today, 7 years later, there are over 580 such publications, and that number increases daily.

Alarmingly, about 80% of those have been published since January 1, 2013 and over 50% in just the past year and a half. Yet most of the shale boom occurred prior to 2014. Where shale oil and gas development has occurred, it has been done largely in ignorance of its impacts. A review of those 580 publications in the key categories of impacts to human health, to air, and to water reveals that 94% find harmful impacts to human health, 69% find harmful impacts on water quality, and 88% find harmful impacts to air quality.

On top of this nascent but rapidly growing base of peer-reviewed publication of data and information there now comes a timely and exhaustive basis for giving context to these harmful impacts in the Marcellus play, and especially that part not yet developed, the Delaware River Basin. The epoch of anecdotes is over:  we know have firm scientific evidence of the harmful impacts of shale gas development, as forecast in the CNA report.

The CNA study is, in effect, a focusing lens that clarifies the interactions of many factors behind shale gas production in the Marcellus.

Let's look now at the global scale. Can shale gas development in the Delaware River Basin have effects that go beyond the region? The world's leading climate scientists now calculate that over 75% of the remaining fossil fuel reserves, including the shale gas in the Eastern Marcellus, must remain undeveloped if we are to avoid irreversible climate harm in the next few decades.  Who will volunteer their shale gas to stay underground? 

The Marcellus is now the largest producer of shale gas in the United States. Hasn't Pennsylvania already done enough to have already released significant amounts of both carbon dioxide and methane into the global climate engine?  Is it in the best interests of not only the citizenry of the Delaware River Basin, but also that of all Americans to permit yet an additional 63,000 shale gas wells in the Marcellus with 4000 in the Delaware rivershed?  I strongly suggest the answer to these last two questions is “NO”. I think it is far better that we all do our part in the fight against global warming by deciding now where we will place a monument, not build another well pad, somewhere along our beloved Delaware that declares, “This is where we stopped!”

Dr. Anthony R. Ingraffea is the Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering Emeritus at Cornell University, a founding member of the board of PSE Healthy Energy, a not-for-profit science-based organization of physicians, scientists and engineers, and serves as Secretary-Treasurer for Earthworks.