It’s time for Pennsylvania and the world to cut greenhouse gas emissions. But HB 1100, passed by the state legislature in February, gives away subsidies and legal protections to the petrochemical industry while encouraging fracking and cracking (as ethane “cracker plants” do) and the greenhouse gases they produce.
The movement away from fossil fuels is gaining momentum. By December 2019, the glut of shale gas had driven down the market price so far that Chevron plans to stop drilling in the Appalachian Basin. Other companies are also cutting back their investment in natural gas extraction, and so are the banks that finance energy companies. Why should Pennsylvania sacrifice to develop assets that are in danger of being stranded?
In a January article in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), three leading researchers decried the “false promise” of natural gas, which contributes to health and environmental hazards and reduces social welfare at every stage of its production cycle.
These effects will certainly bear on our situation here in Pennsylvania. Expansion of the petrochemical industry, funded by the state, will produce more wells, more pipelines, more compressor stations, more combustion of gas, and more cracking of ethane gas.
Byproducts of this industrial activity include more brine — fracking wastewater, which is radioactive and chemically toxic — and more release of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, as well as carcinogens like benzene and other air pollutants. Compressor stations release these toxic substances into the air as they adjust the pressure in the transmission lines that move gas across our state. With more pipelines also come greater risks of pipeline leaks, fires, and explosions — all of which further endanger our health.
The NEJM article reported that 25% of chemicals known to be used in fracking fluids are implicated in cancer, 30%-40% could disrupt the endocrine system, 40%-50% could cause nervous, immune, and cardiovascular system problems, and 75% are toxic to the skin and eyes, as well as breathing and digestion systems.
Thus, drilling, fracking, transporting, and processing gas is likely to exacerbate asthma, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes in people living nearby, and increase the incidence of premature birth and birth defects in infants. Well emissions contribute to ozone creation and include several carcinogens. Brine from the Marcellus Shale has recently been shown to be radioactive, meaning exposure can increase the risk of cancer.
Moreover, because air pollutants generated from gas operations travel with the wind across county and state boundaries, the risk of diseases including asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and cardiovascular disease spreads across the region.
But most devastating and long-lasting are the climate effects of extracting, processing, and transporting natural gas, as well as deriving plastics, fertilizer, and other petrochemicals from it. The greenhouse gases released — methane and carbon dioxide — contribute to an accelerating climate crisis that harms our health today and will last for thousands of years. This crisis will affect all of us nationwide and around the world, damaging agriculture and compromising food supplies, as it has already brought more wildfires, floods, droughts, and illness.
Gov. Tom Wolf should veto HB 1100 as he has promised he would do, and our legislators should put public health first and not override the veto, as they’ll have the option to do. It is time for our state legislators to recognize how much HB 1100 will really cost their constituents. The people of Pennsylvania have already given too much of their health in exchange for a pittance of the wealth amassed by the petrochemical industry.
After vetoing HB 1100, lawmakers can tell their grandchildren, who were able to grow up healthy in our beautiful state, that they did the right thing by recognizing, as many already have, that the gas should stay in the ground.
Barbara W. Brandom is a retired pediatric anesthesiologist and a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility.