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May 21, 2015

Study: Fracking's effect on air quality not as damaging as expected

Drexel researchers assess impact at sites in Pennsylvania

Concerns over fracking in the Marcellus Shale, one of the largest natural gas resources in the United States, have largely centered on chemical pollutants leaking into Pennsylvania's underground drinking water.

But should the air above the ground be a concern as well?

Drexel University researchers attempted to provide some answers. In a newly published report in the Environmental Science & Technology journal, scientists from the university's chemistry, civil, architectural and environmental engineering departments, as well as other researchers, measured the air quality in and around fracking wells in northeastern and southwestern Pennsylvania.   

The results? Surprisingly good, said Dr. Peter F. DeCarlo, assistant professor of chemistry and one of the authors of the study. 

Fracking at the Marcellus Shale has had "less impact than we expected," DeCarlo said. "From an air-quality perspective, it's not as damaging as we expected."

In fact, the air quality in Philadelphia would be of greater concern, DeCarlo said, "there's no question about that."

What was worrisome was that the amount of methane, a greenhouse gas, was "a little bit higher than expected." Since methane is one of the gases the energy industry is trying to harness, there's an economic incentive to better plug any leaks in the fracking process. 

Despite the good news, DeCarlo cautioned that the study only looked at a fraction of the 6,000 wells in Pennsylvania, and that a "super emitter," a well that inadvertently pumps harmful amounts of methane or other gases into the air, could be sitting unmonitored in a rural field somewhere. 

In the Marcellus Shale, "there has been scant research into the characteristics and potential impacts of emission sources on (air quality)," the study asserts. "Additionally, there is very limited ambient air quality monitoring coverage in the Marcellus region, particularly in rural areas with high densities of (natural gas) development activity."

You can read the entire study here.