Fracking, Natural Gas, and Health

The health impact of fossil fuels has been an issue under discussion for some time.  Earlier this year, I examined the issue of air quality, fine particulates and their scientific relationship with respiratory health in Penley on Education and Energy.  Another topic that has been repeatedly explored is the increased use of natural gas in the generation of electricity and it’s substantial, positive impact on the environment. New research reported here is consistent with the environmental value that comes from the increased availability and use of natural gas in the generation of electricity.

A scientific study, published in the February 2013 issue of Environment International, addressed the broad topic of the economic impact of fossil fuels via the relationship of fossil fuel-related emissions to health costs.  The research is worth understanding in light of the continued controversy over hydraulic fracturing or fracking –the primary method of accessing the plentiful amounts of natural gas located in shale formations across the country.  Fracking is the process whereby liquids are injected into shale substrata or formations in order to release stored natural gas, previously inaccessible without this new technology.

The scientific study from Environment International examines the economic impact of three fossil fuels widely used in the generation of electricity — coal, oil and natural gas.  The impact on health from fossil fuels can be understood from their creation of atmospherically released particulates or particulate matter (PM).  There is documentation that fine particulates, such as those associated with the burning of fossil fuels have an impact on respiratory health.  The widely circulated pictures of poor air quality in Beijing in the last year along with the increased reports in temporally associated respiratory problems are a well-known example.

The health-related costs referred to in the study are what economists call externalities.  Externalities are the costs or benefits to a society that are not included in the price of a good, i.e., in this case the price of the fossil fuel being used to generate electricity.  The study found that there were vast differences related to health costs from coal, oil and natural gas. The study’s results are relatively consistent with earlier research conducted by the National Research Council on the hidden costs of various fuel sources.

The study found that dollars to dimes, natural gas had a much smaller effect economically on overall health costs when related to other fossils fuels. While coal or oil have associated economic values of health impacts ranging from $.08-$.45/kWH; natural gas was found to be only between $0.1-$0.2/kWH. When you consider the amount of electricity generated by a coal-fired plant or one fueled by natural gas, economically the health costs to natural gas attribute to only a mere 5% of the total amount.

The considerably lower impact on the health costs of natural gas makes a strong case for its increased use. Natural gas has been found to be cleaner to burn, widely-available, affordable to access and far more cost-neutral when it comes to the economic health costs associated with its development. The development of hydraulic fracturing has not only opened a window to the stability of our energy future, but also to our long-term health costs when dealing with the use of fossil fuels.


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