Our Air Is Getting Cleaner, And Natural Gas Deserves Some Fracking Credit
Written by: Isaac Orr
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A new study released by the World Health Organization (WHO) says although outdoor air pollution worldwide has increased by 8% in the past five years, air quality in the United States has become cleaner. A key reason that air quality has improved is because more Americans than ever are now relying on natural gas, and burning natural gas emits fewer pollutants into the atmosphere than burning coal.
Hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, has turned the U.S. into the largest producer of natural gas in the world. Fracking has unleashed so much natural gas that prices have plummeted in the past several years, which has made it cheaper to generate electricity from burning natural gas than from coal. This is an important part of explaining why WHO recorded lower levels of air pollutants in the U.S.
Burning natural gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as burning coal, and it also emits lower levels of other pollutants as well. For example, natural gas emits one-third the nitrogen oxides and only 1% of the sulfur oxides that are produced by burning coal.
These two compounds can combine with water vapor in the atmosphere to create very small particles — particles measuring 2.5 micrometers in diameter, which are commonly referred to as PM2.5. When these particles are present in very high concentrations, they have been linked to negative health impacts such as increasing the risk of stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, and chronic and acute respiratory diseases, including asthma.
Not only did WHO find that air quality has improved in the United States in recent years, the study found that cities in North America generally have cleaner air than in Europe, where several countries — including France, Germany and Ireland — have placed moratoriums or bans on hydraulic fracturing.
According to WHO data, only 20% of North American cities exceeded their recommended levels of PM2.5 — which are more restrictive than levels established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) — compared to Europe, where 60% of urban areas experienced air quality that was above the recommended concentrations.
Air quality was even worse in low- and middle-income countries, where an astonishing 98% of cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants exceeded WHO recommendations, largely because they do not have the same technology that reduces pollution from coal-fired power plants.
As unrealistic as it may seem, there are 2.6 billion people (approximately 38% of the total population) in the developing world still using wood and animal dung to cook their food and heat their homes. Burning wood and animal dung in their houses causes indoor air pollution that kills 4 million people every year, more than double the amount of people who are killed by malaria or HIV/AIDS.
Fracking for natural gas represents an opportunity to reduce the amount of particle pollution in the air without increasing the cost of electricity. This is important because low-income families pay a much larger percentage of their income on energy costs, meaning that they have to work more hours and spend less time with their kids when energy prices rise.
The EPA conducted a thorough assessment of fracking and found no evidence that fracking led to widespread or systemic impacts on groundwater quality, and it found that although surface spills and well-casing leaks have occurred, they are rare compared to the number of wells drilled.