Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Has Anything Improved Public Health More In NY And America Than More Natural Gas Since 2008? Probably Not!

For years air pollutants that cause illness have been reaching New Yorkers from out-of-state as well as in-state pollution sources.  The same is true in Pennsylvania and virtually every part of America.  Public-health-damaging pollutants include soot, mercury, lead, arsenic, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur oxides.

Soot alone is known to cause massive amounts of illness and premature deaths. Indeed, the public health literature has documented that lessening soot in the air extends significantly the life expectancy of whole populations. For example, in the Pittsburgh region, reductions in soot have added at least 10 months on average to the life of everyone living there.

Given what we know about air pollution does to public health, there is no doubt that it poses a major public health threat.  To address this threat, key questions become: what are the major sources of air pollutants that damage health? What can be done to reduce the total air pollutants in our air? And what are the current trends?  Part of the answer to these questions comes from the fact that natural gas emits no soot, mercury, lead, arsenic and much, much less of other air pollutants that damage health than oil or coal.

In addition to transportation, two major sources of air pollution in New York are out-of-state and in-state coal plants, with no or limited pollution controls, and burning heavy sulfur oil to heat buildings.  Indeed, though New York City plans to transition from high sulfur heating oil to gas, the City still consumes large amounts of high sulfur heating oil to get through each winter, at the price of emitting substantial air pollution.

By contrast, gas-heated buildings or gas-fired power plants emit none or very little of the pollutants that cause human illness.  Consequently, the substantial increase in gas to displace coal and oil inside and outside of New York has slashed air pollutants that cause illnesses and even premature deaths.

And let's remember these astonishing facts that the shale gas revolution has produced by sharply lowering the price of natural gas.  In 2008, coal power plants provided 48% of our electricity but 36% so far in 2012.  New York has increased its usage of gas to make electricity in 2012 by 21%, while reducing substantially the amount of coal generation in the Empire state.  So far in 2012, coal accounts for just 4% of New York's electricity generation.  And building owners are rapidly switching from oil to gas for heat.

Not surprisingly, given those trends, NRDC documents that toxic air pollution declined in the nation by 19% during 2010 and specifically identifies the use of more natural gas as a major reason. Gas up; pollution down.

Further major declines in toxic air pollutants have certainly taken place in 2011 and 2012, as more gas, renewable energy, and energy efficiency displaces coal and oil combustion.

All these facts lead to a question, has anything improved public health more in New York since 2008 than natural gas? Yes, scrubbers on coal plants help and so do more renewable energy and energy efficiency.  Gas alone is not the full answer.

But gas substituting for coal and oil may be the single biggest source of air pollution reduction since 2008 and certainly is among the top three.  And so, serious study of the public health impacts of shale gas production should include the large health benefits of less pollution delivered by more gas usage, before reaching conclusions about the public health impact of natural gas.

For the fact is that low-priced natural gas, made possible by the shale revolution, has slashed the amount of air pollution that every New Yorker and every American breathes!

1 comment:

  1. Concerned ScientistOctober 10, 2012 at 9:06 AM

    Right On! A very important point. I think an Op-Ed in the New York Times on this topic would be a great contribution. Even if all of the actual harm to the environment that comes from the entire process is added into the equation, it still comes out that the net effect of the shale gas revolution is a massive improvement in environmental quality.