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Authors of Fracking Study Dismayed at Good News

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A new study published in Environment International indicates hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking,” and the heavy truck traffic that is associated with it would have a negligible impact on air quality if fracking were to be used extensively in the United Kingdom. Interestingly, the authors of the study appear to be a little disappointed with their findings, which may be why they decided to emphasize maximum exposure in a shorter timeframe in their study, rather than exposures over more realistic scenarios.     

Hydraulic fracturing is a technique for extracting oil and natural gas from stubborn rocks, such as shale and tight sandstone. In less than 10 years, fracking has turned the United States from an “also-ran” to an energy superpower that has nearly doubled its oil production since 2008, making it the largest producer of natural gas in the world. The technique could also boost natural gas production in the United Kingdom, but fracking has been met with staunch opposition from environmental groups who oppose the potential impacts drilling, production, and heavy truck traffic may have on the region.

Heavy vehicles are associated with producing higher levels of noise, road damage, and air pollution in the form of small particulates—which form as a result of fuel combustion in all vehicles—compared to lighter vehicles. The authors of the paper developed a traffic impact model to produce an environmental assessment of both the short-term and long-term impacts of fracking at individual sites, as well as regional impact analysis.

According to the model developed by the researchers, heavy vehicle traffic related to fracking for an individual well, multi-well pad, or even a region would be negligible compared to those associated with transport in the region as a whole or those emissions associated with some other established industrial sector. However, the researchers did suggest there could be an increase in particle emission in the air during the fracturing process, which requires hundreds of trucks hauling water and sand to a well site, although the study was not clear on whether pollution standards were likely to be exceeded.

Particulate matter and other particle pollution can have an effect on the health of nearby residents if it exceeds the health-based safety standards, but people must generally be exposed to these levels of particulate matter for long periods for it to have negative health effects. This is why exposure to harmful particles is typically measured as a time-weighted average over a series of years (three years in the United States) to determine whether it will have adverse human health impacts. The short durations for which heavy traffic would take place during fracking would be unlikely to affect these longer-term averages.

Ironically, fracking may actually have an important role in reducing particle pollution in the United Kingdom in the coming decades, because Britain has been burning large quantities of diesel fuelwhich emits far more particulates into the air than natural gas, for electricity generation.

Larger supplies of affordable natural gas will be essential if the United Kingdom wants to replace coal- and diesel-powered generation systems, which produce nitrogen oxides and particulate matter at significantly higher levels than natural-gas-fired power plants. Also, burning natural gas instead of coal emits half as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and natural gas emits about one-third less carbon dioxide than gasoline or diesel.

Although the authors of the study don’t seem thrilled about the results, people in Britain should be, because it shows over a longer baseline—the entire operational lifetime of a pad—fracking would result in negligible relative increases compared to baseline traffic impacts. These findings, in addition to the environmental benefits of natural gas compared to coal or diesel, should make environmentally conscious people in the United Kingdom eager to consider the environmental benefits of fracking.

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