Shale Gas Emissions: Advocating for Health-Protective Policies
The last few decades have seen a shale gas development boom across the U.S., accounting for the majority of the new growth in oil and gas facilities, now estimated at 1.3 million. These shale gas facilities include active production wells, gas compressor stations, and processing plants and have spurred the development of other infrastructure, such as pipelines, storage facilities, injection wells, waste sites, trucking services, and petrochemical plants.
Threat Radius Map from The Oil and Gas Threat Map
Approximately 12.6 million people in the U.S. live within one-half mile of an oil or gas facility. Many, especially those in underserved and underrepresented communities, live near multiple sources of emissions. Nearly 2.9 million children attend school within a half-mile of these facilities. Against this backdrop of industry, the risk that people are being exposed to toxic chemicals is greatly intensified, a public health crisis that policy makers need to address.
Prior Policy Has Failed the Public
Various governing bodies—at the federal, state, and local levels—have created an extremely favorable environment for shale gas companies. These policy makers have put public health at risk by prioritizing shale gas development over health protections for residents while at the same time limiting municipal authority to reduce that risk.
While some states have responded proactively and placed indefinite moratoriums on shale gas drilling (New York, Maryland), others (Pennsylvania, Texas, Colorado) have given operators broad access to lease private property for maximum production, relaxed standards and oversight, and provided administrative cover for myriad risks to public health. As mounting scientific evidence has revealed that shale gas development poses a serious risk to public health, policy makers have continued to ignore that evidence, allowing business to continue as usual and further delaying health-protective action.
EHP’s Policy Recommendations
EHP advocates for a health-protective approach to shale gas development that places health and wellbeing at the center of policy decisions and ensures safety and health for all, regardless of race or ethnicity, sex, sexual identity, age, disability, or socioeconomic status. More specifically, EHP urges policy makers to:
1. Adopt a health-protective approach to shale gas development.
Policy makers should halt or mitigate the risks to the community by preventing exposure to air and water contamination when there is uncertainty about its effects on residents, especially children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with existing health conditions. Primary consideration should be given to the people living within proximity to any shale gas facility, ensuring they are not exposed to levels of emissions harmful to themselves or their families.
2. Shift the burden of proof to industry and away from residents.
Government agencies should require shale gas companies to disclose expected emissions to the public and to install monitoring equipment—the data from which should be made publicly available—to ensure that degradation of industry systems do not risk public health over time. Agencies should establish such monitors and compliance with standards before granting permits. Further, agencies should appropriately classify waste streams based on the toxics they contain. All waste must be tracked from cradle to grave and disposed in a fashion that prevents exposure to residents. Once operational, any company failing to comply with regulations and standards should lose its permits to operate.
3. Increase public participation in health decision-making.
People who live in proximity to shale gas development should be involved in decisions that affect their own health. This is especially true of those in underserved and underrepresented areas. Government agencies should develop and maintain open channels of communication that allow residents to easily and without threat of retaliation share health information and harms related to shale gas development. Departments of health should actively warn residents of the risks they face and provide advice to them and to physicians for how they can best protect themselves and others from exposure. Departments of environmental protection should notify communities of any substantive changes to existing permits or permit applications, as well as any industry violations, so that residents and communities can better manage the associated health risks.
4. Fully fund and staff government agencies that protect public health.
State departments of health and environmental protection should be adequately supported so that they can investigate and monitor the entire shale gas development process, from site preparation through waste treatment and sequestration. Relying on industry to self-report emissions, waste, and health impacts does not provide adequate safeguards to public health.
5. Work toward a quick and just transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energies.
Policy makers should take into account global and local health impacts, economic priorities, and environmental justice issues when making policy regarding shale gas development. Fossil fuel extraction, transportation, processing, and consumption hastens the warming of the planet and exposes local residents and their families to numerous serious and documented health risks (see “Impacts” below). In addition to examining economic and social factors, a consideration of health impacts is central to any policy decision, especially when underserved and underrepresented communities are involved.
Our recommendations do not leave residents risk-free, but they do reflect remedies that would help to keep residents significantly safer from environmental exposure to shale gas emissions and waste than they are under current regulations and practices.
What You Can Do
To demand better health protection from shale gas development activities, contact your state department of health and local, state, and federal representatives.
For Pennsylvania residents, the Environmental Integrity Project hosts the Pennsylvania Citizens’ Toolkit, which offers advocacy resources for concerned residents. The Toolkit includes information about how to document and report problems, prepare and present testimonies, and more.
Additional ways in which you can play a part include:
Attending webinars to better understand shale gas development and associated policies
Monitoring and documenting personal health and home impacts that may be related to shale gas development
Publishing Letters to the Editor and sharing your story with local media outlets
Contacting the Department of Health or Department of Environmental Protection to advocate for health-protective actions
Electing representatives who share your values
For assistance or more tips and information, please contact EHP at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have you or someone you know been impacted by oil and gas development, and would you like to share your story? Contact us at email@example.com.
The Environmental Health Project (EHP) is a nonprofit public health organization that defends public health in the face of oil and gas development. We provide frontline communities with timely monitoring, interpretation, and guidance. We engage diverse stakeholders: health professionals, researchers, community organizers, public servants, and others. We do so because knowledge protects health.