The Research Is In: Stop Fracking ASAP

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Over 1,500 reports show there’s simply no safe way to do it — and it’s harming us all every day it goes on.

Science. Evidence. Facts. Do these even matter anymore in U.S. policy? They should — especially when it comes to issues that affect our health and environment, like fracking. 

Concerned Health Professionals of New York and my organization, Physicians for Social Responsibility, recently released a remarkable compendium of research on the subject. It summarizes and links to over 1,500 articles and reports and has become the go-to source for activists, health professionals, and others seeking to understand fracking. 

The new studies we looked at expose serious threats to health, justice, and the climate.

2018 study in the Journal of Health Economics, for instance, found that the babies of Pennsylvania mothers living within 1.5 miles of gas wells had increased incidence of low birth weight. Babies with low birth weight (under 5.5 pounds) are over 20 times more likely to die in infancy than babies with healthy birth weight.

Babies exposed in utero to fracking are likely to face additional challenges throughout their lives. They may suffer long-term neurologic disability, impaired language development and academic success, and increased risk of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. 

Other researchers are finding that fracking wells and associated infrastructure are disproportionately sited in non-white, indigenous, or low-income communities. 

study published this year in Ecological Economics analyzed the socio-demographics of people living near drilling and fracking operations in four high-fracking states: Colorado, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Texas. It found strong evidence that minorities, especially African Americans, disproportionately live near fracking wells. 

They don’t just face disproportionate exposure to toxic emissions, leaks, and spills. They also have fewer resources — like health insurance, medical services, or income security — that would help them protect their health.

But you don’t have to live near wells and pipelines to be at risk. We all face harm from fracking’s impact on the climate. 

So-called “natural gas” is 85-95 percent methane, a short-lived but highly potent greenhouse gas. Over its first 20 years in the atmosphere, methane traps about 86 times more heat than carbon dioxide. That 20-year timeframe matters: Scientists tell us that’s about the time we have to slash our greenhouse gas emissions and begin pulling carbon out of the atmosphere.  

Unfortunately, as the research we collected finds, methane leakage rates from drilling and fracking operations have “greatly exceed” earlier estimates. A 2018 analysis of methane leaks across the U.S. found leakage rates to be 60 percent higher than reported by the EPA. A 2019 study in southwestern Pennsylvania found some gas emissions to have been underreported by a factor of five. 

Overall, how bad is fracking? The Compendium states that “public health risks from unconventional gas and oil extraction are real, the range of adverse environmental impacts wide, and the negative economic consequences considerable.” 

It concludes: “Our examination of the peer-reviewed medical, public health, biological, earth sciences, and engineering literature uncovered no evidence that fracking can be practiced in a manner that does not threaten human health.”

The logical conclusion is that, for health, justice, and a livable world, the time to stop using fracked gas is now.

  • mwildfire

    The methane in the atmosphere issue was reported here in a distorted way. Methane is all gone within about 12 years so mentioning “its first 20 years” doesn’t make sense. But this is why you see such different numbers comparing the greenhouse impact of methane versus carbon dioxide. Some of the CO2 will still be up there warming the Earth for hundreds, some say even thousands of years–and this will certainly matter, to anyone alive a century from now when the methane is long gone. But on the other hand, the methane is as much as 100 times more potent in the short term and the thing is, it’s the short term we have to turn things violently around if we’re to avert catastrophic climate change. Can we stop increasing, perhaps actually draw down GHG levels before various tipping points are breached, like melting permafrost composed of methaney peat, or methane clathrates in the ocean? NOW is when change must happen, drastic change. It’s surely impossible now to avoid destructive climate change. But we can likely avert catastrophic change if we make huge changes now. Fracking for gas and oil, exploiting tar sands, drilling in the Arctic and under deep water—these extreme extraction methods should be banned. But make no mistake–this will mean an abrupt change in lifestyle. We could have had a gradual, easy transition if we had paid attention 30 years ago, if we had done the right things to terminate population growth and transition to renewable energy. But Reagan sold America the Morning in America story, we clung to our privileged lives, and our descendents will pay the price for many, many generations.

  • John Chadwick

    IF, IF, IF we stopped generating methane NOW, then in less than 12 years it would be gone. BUT we continue to generate more methane EVERY day! SO, we will be able to measure it for as long as we continue to generate methane. AND methane is over 20 times worse at trapping the heat within our biosphere.