Op-Ed by Philip J. Landrigan, M.D., Howard Frumkin, M.D., Dr.P.H., and Brita E. Lundberg, M.D.
Production of natural gas has grown by nearly 400% in the United States since 1950, and gas is now the country’s second-largest energy source. The main driver of this increase has been the wide-scale adoption of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). During the fracking process, large volumes of water, sand, and chemicals are injected deep underground at high pressure to fracture shale deposits and sand and coal beds to release trapped gas. The world’s largest gas-transmission network — with more than 300,000 miles of interstate and intrastate transmission pipelines, 2.1 million miles of local distribution lines, and more than 1000 compressor stations — brings this gas to the market. The ready availability of gas has reduced dependence on coal and oil, enables the United States to ship gas overseas, and will make the country a net energy exporter by 2020. It has also made gas an important feedstock for the chemical, pesticide, and plastics-manufacturing industries.
Natural gas, composed principally of methane, has been hailed as a clean “transition” fuel — a bridge from the coal and oil of the past to the clean energy sources of the future. This claim is partially true. Gas combustion produces only negligible quantities of sulfur dioxide, mercury, and particulates. It is thus less polluting than combustion of coal or oil, and this benefits health. Gas combustion also generates less carbon dioxide per unit of energy than combustion of coal or oil.
But beneath this rosy narrative lies a more complex story. Gas is associated with health and environmental hazards and reduced social welfare at every stage of its life cycle.