The great state of Pennsylvania has seen its share of natural gas fracking jump from 100 wells in 2006 to 8,000 wells today, and a new study from Johns Hopkins University suggests that the industry’s growth has come at high price for local residents. The numbers indicate a significant adverse impact on expectant mothers, leading to an increased risk of premature birth and high-risk pregnancy.
Fracking, Greenhouse Gas Emissions And LNG Exports
Natural gas has long been touted as a “cleaner” alternative to petroleum and coal, which is fine if you’re only counting greenhouse gas emissions at the burn point. Lifecycle impacts are a whole ‘nother can of worms, particularly when it comes to fracking (short for hydrofracturing), the oil and gas drilling method that typically involves pumping millions of gallons of brine underground.
A relative rarity until recent years, fracking has become the drilling method of choice in states like Pennsylvania, which lie over shale formations rich in natural gas. A phalanx of Bush-era federal loopholes, cozy state regulations, and trade secrets privileges have prevented researchers from assessing the impact on public health, but evidence — like the new Johns Hopkins study — is slowly beginning to pile up.
That evidence will create more headaches for the US fracking industry, which has been pinning its hopes on LNG (liquid natural gas) exports to grow its market.
The Obama Administration has been doling out new export permits, but the pace has been excruciatingly slow from the industry’s perspective, despite the intense lobbying. Meanwhile, it appears that the global LNG export market is collapsing under its own weight.
Given the President’s position on another intensely lobbied fossil fuel export project, the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the last thing the US fracking industry needs is more evidence that its activities are harmful to public health — particularly in the case of LNG exports, where US citizens bear all the risks and receive none of the benefits.
Fracking And Premature Births: The Johns Hopkins Study
That brings us around to the new Johns Hopkins fracking study, which you can find under the title “Unconventional Natural Gas Development and Birth Outcomes in Pennsylvania, USA” in the journal Epidemiology.
Here are the money quotes from the abstract:
Unconventional natural gas development has expanded rapidly. In Pennsylvania, the number of producing wells increased from 0 in 2005 to 3,689 in 2013. Few publications have focused on unconventional natural gas development and birth outcomes.
Prenatal residential exposure to unconventional natural gas development activity was associated with two pregnancy outcomes, adding to evidence that unconventional natural gas development may impact health.
The study is based on electronic health record data in 40 Pennsylvania counties for 9,384 mothers and 10,946 neonates (that’s fancyspeak for babies under four weeks old) covering 2009 to 2013. The researchers cross-referenced those outcomes with information on their proximity to fracked wells, and operational details about those wells during the mothers’ pregnancies.
The researchers determined that mothers living near the most active wells were 40 (yes, that’s 40) percent more likely to give birth pre-term, meaning before 37 weeks of gestation.
Mothers living near the most active wells were also 30 percent more likely to have their doctor determine that their pregnancy was “high-risk,” a label typically applied when high blood pressure and high weight are present. Overall, 11 percent of babies in the study were born preterm, with the majority (79 percent) born between 32 and 36 weeks.
Johns Hopkins’s press materials note that in addition to noise, air pollution and other impacts of the drilling operation itself, the stress factors involved in living near wells include the impact of increased traffic. With a typical fracked well involving millions of gallons of brine, that can add up to hundreds of tanker trucks on local, rural roads.
The research team emphasizes that the industry needs to be placed under closer scrutiny:
The growth in the fracking industry has gotten way out ahead of our ability to assess what the environmental and, just as importantly, public health impacts are. More than 8,000 unconventional gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania alone and we’re allowing this while knowing almost nothing about what it can do to health.
“The First Few Studies Have All Shown Health Impacts”
The research team also notes that so far, every fracking study has demonstrated health impacts. Another recent example in Pennsylvania is a study linking low birth weight babies and proximity to fracking operations.
As for the Keystone connection, President Obama has been dropping a steady stream of hints that he will deny a required State Department permit for this cross-border project between Canada and the US, based on the fact that US citizens receive no direct benefit while bearing all the risks of a tar sands oil pipeline routed through the nation’s breadbasket states.
If that’s the case, the US natural gas industry may be sitting on its hands over LNG exports for quite some time.
One the other hand ExxonMobil, always one step ahead of the game, is already building a huuuuuuuge gas-to-plastics operation at its Baytown facility in Texas (and at least two more gas-to-plastic facilities overseas), so it looks like that company has figured out a way to keep the export mill humming, LNG or not.
The company has been gobbling up shale gas reserves in the US so stay tuned.
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