Even before President-elect Donald Trump lined his Cabinet with some of the most pro-fossil fuel ornaments money can buy, natural gas was here to stay. And now, thanks to advances in drilling technology—i.e. hydraulic fracturing—over the last decade, natural gas is poised to start beating coal at its own game: Generating electricity in the United States.
According to a recent Energy Outlook report from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, 2016 is forecast to be the first year that natural gas-fired power generation exceeds coal generation on an annual basis (having first surpassed it on a monthly basis in 2015). Beginning in 2009 the gap between gas and coal prices started to narrow due to the large amounts of natural gas being produced from shale. From 2000 to 2008, coal was significantly cheaper than natural gas and supplied almost half of U.S. power generation. By 2015, coal and gas each provided about one-third of all electricity generation.
This is a monumental shift, as coal has provided the bulk of U.S. power supply for decades.
The shift away from coal is not all market driven. It also happens to be an extremely dirty source of energy both locally and globally—a reality many countries are slowly waking up to and confronting via regulations and renewable energy plans. Natural gas, however, has its own slate of worrisome problems. Extensive methane leaks are a growing issue, and many people are worried about their contribution to climate change. A study earlier this year found that the U.S. shale boom could be responsible for between 30% and 60% of the global growth in human-caused atmospheric methane emissions since 2002. The Obama administration aimed to cut methane emissions from the oil and gas industry by up to 45% below 2012 levels by 2025.
And then there's the local impacts. For starters, a large new study by the EPA recently determined that fracking for oil and gas can contaminate drinking water in certain circumstances, a strong claim that the agency had not previously officially asserted.
Unfortunately, as these local and global impacts increase in urgency, it's highly unlikely that Trump's administration will rise to the challenge of meeting them with in-depth studies and tighter regulations. Trump’s pick to run the EPA, Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt, has made it clear that he’ll be fighting regulatory overreach as head of the EPA and is not interested in adding new regulations.
Two new studies focusing on community impacts add to the growing literature calling for a closer look at the pros and cons of the fast-growing industry.
The first study focuses on an under-the-radar form of pollution—noise. While a lot of noise (excuse the pun) has been made about how loud wind turbines are, it turns out living near fracking operations is no walk in the park. The study, conducted by the nonprofit science and policy research institute PSE Healthy Energy and West Virginia University, found that noise from fracking may contribute to adverse health outcomes in three categories:
- Annoyance: Sustained noise may produce a host of negative responses such as feelings of anger, anxiety, helplessness, distraction, and exhaustion, and may predict future psychological distress.
- Sleep Disturbance: Awakening and changes in sleep state have after-effects that include drowsiness, cognitive impairment and long-term chronic sleep disturbance.
- Cardiovascular Health: Studies have found positive correlations between chronic noise exposure and elevated blood pressure, hypertension and heart disease.
“People living near oil and gas development may bring up concerns like air pollution, traffic and groundwater safety, but many also complain about noise,” said Jake Hays, director of the Environmental Health Program at PSE Healthy Energy, and lead author of the paper, which was published December 9 in Science of the Total Environment.
According to the study, environmental noise is a well-documented public health hazard, with numerous studies linking it to things like diabetes, depression, birth complications, and cognitive impairment in children. This includes not only loud noises but also low-level sustained noises like natural gas compressor stations that produce a consistent rumble.
“Oil and gas operations produce a complex symphony of noise types, including intermittent and continuous sounds and varying intensities,” said PSE Healthy Energy Executive Director Seth Shonkoff.
Fracking isn't only a symphony of noises, but also a symphony of local impacts, and a new study out of the University of Chicago compares these costs and benefits in nine different shale regions across the country.
The study found that while local economic benefits such as increased average income, increased employment, and increased housing prices are significant, there are also a number of costs. These include increased truck traffic, more noise and air pollution, and higher rates of crime. The slightly elevated crime rates were the most directly measurable cost in the analysis, and are a concern even as local governments have allocated around 20% more funds to improve public safety. In one extreme example of this, parts of North Dakota saw such a surge in criminal activity after the state’s recent fossil fuel boom that lawmakers’ and local officials’ called for more FBI presence.
Along with drug-related and violent crime, North Dakota’s oil boom has also brought with it crime related directly to oil infrastructure. Last year, police found a huge stockpile of illegally dumped radioactive oil socks — nets that are used in the oil production process — in an abandoned North Dakota gas station. Some oil and wastewater spills, which have been on the rise since the boom, have also been suspected to have been caused by criminal activity.
While for the time being the data from the University of Chicago study indicates that the average local benefits outweigh the costs, the authors note that this may change as more information about the environmental and health impacts of hydraulic fracturing is revealed.
"It is increasingly clear that policymakers and stakeholders on all sides of this debate could benefit from evidence-based analysis of the costs and benefits of hydraulic fracturing," states the report. "The industry is now at least 10 years old in the United States, offering a wealth of data and opportunities to conduct more in-depth analysis."