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Issue No. 54 - April 15, 2015

1. UK health professionals call for fracking moratorium

Health & Fracking

On March 30, 2015, the UK health charity Medact issued a new report: Health & Fracking: the impacts and opportunity costs, which concludes that hydraulic fracturing for shale gas poses significant health risks and calls for an immediate moratorium to allow for a full and comprehensive Health Impact Assessment (HIA).

The report identifies a number of health risks associated with the extraction process, which include air pollution (from airborne toxins including oxides of nitrogen, hydrogen sulphide, formaldehyde, benzene, ethylene, toluene, particulate matter and ground-level ozone) and surface and ground water contamination (from gas, fracking fluid, and wastewater that includes fracking chemicals and substances from underground such as lead, arsenic, chromium, cadmium and radioactive material), as well as noise and light pollution, bad odours, and the impacts of heavy truck traffic.

The report has been supported by a letter in the British Medical Journal calling for shale gas development to be put on hold. The letter is signed by Medact, the Climate and Health Council, and senior health professionals.

The press release announcing the report's publication contains the following comments from Dr. David McCoy, director of Medact:

"Today, Medact, alongside a wider group of health professionals, has called for a moratorium on fracking because of the serious risks it poses to public health. Fracking has already been suspended in Wales and Scotland because of health and climate risks and New York State has banned fracking because of the ‘significant health risks’.
(Ed.: This month, the state of Maryland has also passed a 2.5 year fracking ban.)

The report also concludes that the greenhouse gas emissions produced by shale gas are incompatible with UK climate change mitigation commitments: "...given that shale gas may deepen the serious threats posed by climate change, there are compelling and important grounds to abandon the policy of shale gas development altogether."

In addition, the report finds that "the regulatory system for fracking is presently incomplete and inadequately robust."

The health impacts of unconventional gas extraction are explored in detail in a special issue of the Journal of Environmental Science and Health: Facing the Challenges -- Research on Shale Gas Extraction. Summaries of each of the many scientific papers contained in the special issue can be found on Canadian activist Jessica Ernst's website.

2. New research shows natural gas no better than coal for mitigating climate change

Key factors for assessing climate benefits of natural gas versus coal electricity generation
A new peer-reviewed study, published in Environmental Research Letters, compares the lifecycle carbon footprints of natural gas and coal and finds that high methane emissions can make natural gas worse than coal in terms of global warming in the near term. According to research leader Ken Caldeira, "there would be no short-term benefit if the best natural gas plant were pitted against the best coal plant."

In the long term, natural gas was found to produce less warming than coal. However, as stated in the report abstract:
"without carbon capture and storage natural gas power plants cannot achieve the deep reductions that would be required to avoid substantial contribution to additional global warming."

The research, summarised here, focuses on methane emissions from natural gas power plants. Other research has considered the methane leaks from natural gas pipelines and the methane leaks from natural gas wells, These and other studies have found that over the lifecycle of natural gas extraction and use, the high emissions of methane (a greenhouse gas much more potent than CO2 in the short term) call into question the idea that natural gas could be a "bridge fuel" to mitigate climate change in the short term, while the transition to renewable sources of energy is made.

New analysis from the German Federal Ministry for the Environment finds that, even without taking the methane emissions from shale gas extraction into account, global shale gas production will increase by 2.4% the cost of meeting the EU's 2050 climate target. The analysis considers the effects of shale gas production on the market and on greenhouse gas emissions. The report concludes that "shale gas should not be considered a cheap option to reduce global GHG emissions." Because the effects of global shale gas availability are limited in the short term, shale gas would lead to higher baseline GHG emissions for most countries in the long term due to lower energy prices and  therefore result in higher costs of compliance with climate targets. The report also expresses the concern that lower energy prices would "reduce the payoffs for energy efficiency measures, leading to shortened investment in such measures".

3. Radon levels in Pennsylvania homes increase due to fracking

Radon fracking

Since fracking began in Pennsylvania, the levels of radon, a radioactive and carcinogenic gas, have increased dramatically in homes and commercial buildings that are near fracking sites. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the University of California have published research in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives that reveals a significant correlation between unusually high levels of radon and the proximity to fracking activity.

The researchers analysed radon readings from 860,000 buildings, mostly homes, between 1989 and 2013. In the rural and suburban areas where most shale gas wells are located, they found levels of radon gas that were 39% higher overall than the levels in urban areas. The levels of radon were found to have increased significantly starting in 2004, when fracking started in the state. For 42% of the readings analysed, the radon levels were higher than the level considered safe by the US government. The radon readings of homes with water wells were 21% higher than those served by municipal water supplies.

The study's main author, Joan A. Casey, commented on the findings:

"By drilling 7,000 holes in the ground, the fracking industry may have changed the geology and created new pathways for radon to rise to the surface. Now there are a lot of potential ways that fracking may be distributing and spreading radon."

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