Will Pennsylvania Cut Oil and Gas Air Pollution?

Oil and gas field residents ask important questions, such as “Are the wells and facilities polluting the air?” and “Is that why I’m sick?” Unfortunately, industry representatives and some elected officials often give dismissive answers, like “Natural gas is clean” and “There’s only anecdotal evidence of health problems.”

Well, hundreds of peer-reviewed studies and much community air testing later, it’s getting harder to hide an essential fact: oil and gas development causes air (and water) pollution and harms health. Increasingly, there’s also visual evidence, thanks to infrared cameras that make pollution invisible to the naked eye, visible to the world.

On April 28, Earthworks released a video that clearly demonstrates why stronger protections against oil and gas air pollution are needed. It shares the stories of three Pennsylvania residents living with wells, compressor stations, and pipelines. David Brown of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project also weighs in on the risks of exposure to air pollution.

Earthworks created the video as part of a broad effort with partner organizations to secure state and federal protections against oil and gas air pollution. Earlier this year, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf announced a proposal to curb methane emissions from gas wells, equipment, and processing and transmission facilities. The state clearly has a problem: in 2014 alone, oil and gas producers reported releasing 100,000 metric tons of methane pollution, enough to heat nearly 65,000 homes.

Addressing methane also means curbing a host of health-harming pollutants released along with it. There’s nitrogen oxide, which causes smog and in turn respiratory problems, as well as hazardous substances such as benzene, a known carcinogen, and toluene, which is related to kidney and liver problems. And at 86 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, methane reductions are necessary to combat climate change.

“As a mother living with fracking in my community, I’m deeply concerned about the impacts that air pollution from shale gas development has on the health of children — who are particularly vulnerable, as they are still developing,” says Patrice Tomcik of the Mars Parent Group in Butler County. “Harmful pollution can be emitted during all stages of gas development. My children and all families living near existing gas development will benefit from cutting methane along with toxic co-pollutants. Pennsylvania’s children deserve a healthy environment today and for years to come.”

It remains to be seen when Pennsylvania’s methane proposals will be finalized, what they will accomplish, and the degree to which operators will be held accountable for the pollution they cause. Strong public involvement will be necessary to ensure that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) issues binding measures covering both existing and new sources of pollution and a wide range of processes and facilities, and is empowered with the staff and resources needed to enforce them.

The oil and gas industry and some Pennsylvania legislators are currently hoping to derail popular well site regulations that have been in the works for over four years. They could try to do the same and stop any new air pollution rules as well — which is why there’s no time to waste in taking action.

“The gas and oil industry likes to paint communities and the people that speak out against environmental violations, half truths, and health impacts as radicals,” says Lois Bower-Bjornson of Washington County, PA. “I ask you, who are the radicals? The oil and gas industry is being allowed to radically alter our lives, properties, and health forever. It’s high time the state takes action.”