Climate

Fracking Wells Could Pollute The Air Hundreds Of Miles Away

CREDIT: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

Air pollution from hydraulic fracturing operations can likely travel hundreds of miles, even into states with little or no fracking, a new study has found.

The study, published in the journal Atmospheric Environment, looked at hourly measurements of air pollutants like ethane and methane — gases that are found in natural gas — in Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C. between 2010 and 2013. It found that ethane measurements increased by 30 percent between 2010 and 2013 in the region.

The researchers focused on ethane because they couldn’t find enough data for methane emissions during the time period, and ethane is the second-most abundant compound in natural gas. Ethane spikes in Maryland and D.C.’s air isn’t good news for residents of the region: when ethane is breathed in, it can cause nausea, headaches, and dizziness.

But Maryland doesn’t currently allow fracking — former Gov. Martin O’Malley didn’t propose fracking regulations until the end of his term, and the state didn’t have any fracking between 2010 and 2013. So the researchers compared the ethane data to natural gas production in neighboring states atop the Marcellus shale play, including West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. By doing so, the researchers found that the ethane emissions they found in Maryland appeared to be coming from these neighboring states’ natural gas operations.

“As shale natural gas production continues to expand, this increasing trend will continue in downwind regions until more efficient control technologies are applied,” the authors write in the study.

The authors reviewed levels of ethane in Atlanta, Georgia, a city that isn’t downwind of fracking operations, and found no increase in ethane levels between 2010 and 2013. They were also able to rule out other potential sources of the ethane, including natural gas storage fields in nearby Garrett County, Maryland, and vehicles. Neither of these potential sources saw a spike in natural gas use between 2010 and 2013. But, the report notes, Pennsylvania and West Virginia “house thousands of wells responsible for a tenfold increase in natural gas production volumes from 2009 to 2013.”

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CREDIT: Atmospheric Environment

The study points to the need to keep insterstate pollution in mind when drafting rules on emissions from fracking, one of the study’s authors said in a statement. Methane emissions from fracking aren’t currently regulated in the U.S., but the Environmental Protection Agency introduced a proposed rule earlier this year that aims to cut the emissions.

“What these results mean to me is that we’ve got strong indications that it’s a regional issue,” author Sheryl Ehrman, chemical and biomolecular engineering professor at the University of Maryland, said in a statement. “What we want to do is bring this to people’s attention, advocate for long-term methane monitoring, and promote regional cooperation in monitoring and reducing emissions from natural gas production.”

The study states that, along with ethane, gases like methane and other pollutants could also be traveling across state borders, something that could cause major impacts on air quality and ozone levels in cities downwind of fracking operations.

Other studies have illustrated fracking’s link to air and water pollution. One study of southwestern Pennsylvania fracking wells last year found that the wells released methane at rates 100 to 1,000 times higher than estimates by the EPA. Methane, though shorter-lived once it’s released into the atmosphere than carbon dioxide, is more effective at trapping heat, making it a potent greenhouse gas. A study last year also confirmed that fracking operations have contaminated well water in multiple states, and another found that methane concentration of residential water wells at Pennsylvania homes one mile from fracking wells was six times higher than it was in homes located farther away from wells. The study found that ethane levels were also elevated in water of homes closest to wells.

Health problems, too, have been linked to this pollution: a study last year found higher rates of illness in Pennsylvania households located close to fracking wells than in households farther away.