In mid-February, Pennsylvania's Geisinger Health System received a $1 million grant from the Degenstein Foundation to help fund a study of potential health impacts of Marcellus shale gas drilling. The collaborative study is the first large-scale, scientifically rigorous assessment of the health effects of natural gas production.
But its timing may be inopportune. Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection recently released 2011 emissions data for the unconventional drilling and processing facilities, such as wells and compressor stations.
"The data show that emissions from drilling represent a small fraction of air pollution in the state, which has gone down considerably since shale gas development began in earnest several years ago," says DEP Secretary Mike Krancer. "Natural gas is a domestic, abundant, clean-burning fuel source, and we have the regulations in place to assure that air emissions during drilling and transmission do not compromise the environmental benefit of natural gas as a fuel for electricity and transportation."
Since 2008, air emissions across the state are declining. While unconventional gas production and processing emitted 16,542 tons of nitrogen oxides in 2011, emissions of the same pollutant have fallen 43,000 tons per year.
"It's worth noting that annual sulfur dioxide emissions are down more than half a million tons per year from where they were in 2008," adds Krancer. "This is a direct result of air quality regulations and the increased use of natural gas in the power generation sector." Emissions of fine particulate matter and volatile organic compounds are also down, both within the power generation sector and across the state.
DEP also recently announced, for the next inventory submission due March 1, 2013, that conventional oil and gas compressor stations must report emissions data for 2012.
What the health study look for
This research project comes at a critical time for the residents of Pennsylvania who live in the Marcellus shale region, notes Dr. Glenn Steele Jr., president and chief executive officer at Geisinger Health System. "The establishment of reliable and valid data regarding the potential health impacts of Marcellus shale gas drilling is essential for informed policy decisions."
Geisinger plans to utilize its extensive electronic health record, along with the electronic health records of Guthrie Health, of Sayre, Pa., and Susquehanna Health, of Williamsport, Pa., to study detailed health histories of hundreds of thousands of patients living near the Marcellus shale.
The goal is to create an integrated and sharable data repository on environmental exposures, health outcomes, and community impacts. Potential health effects likely to be investigated first include asthma, trauma and cardiovascular disease.