Research & Commentary: Hydraulic Fracturing and Air Quality

Published September 10, 2012

Earlier this year, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson and President Barack Obama’s science advisor, John P. Holdren, testified separately before Congress that there has never been a single proven case of contaminated drinking water due to hydraulic fracturing, despite the technique being used more than one million times since the 1940s.

Thus the issue of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing has lost traction, and environmental activist groups, in a continuing attempt to derail the industry, have shifted to concerns over air quality. These critics say natural gas wells emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and such emissions could be a threat to public health for those who live near—especially downwind of—a hydraulic fracturing site. Like the prior claims of water contamination, these assertions are exaggerated.

In response to concerned residents living near the Barnett Shale—one of the largest onshore natural gas fields in North America—Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Chairman Bryan Shaw, Ph.D., said, “After several months of operation, state-of-the-art, 24-hour air monitors in the Barnett Shale area are showing no levels of concern for any chemicals. This reinforces our conclusion that there are no immediate health concerns from air quality in the area, and that when they are properly managed and maintained, oil and gas operations do not cause harmful excess air emissions.”

Drilling companies already have to comply with federal air standards for hydraulically fractured natural gas wells, as required by the Clean Air Act. The U.S. Environmental Agency expects those rules will reduce VOC emissions in more than 11,000 new hydraulic fractured gas wells each year by almost 95 percent.

Given the demonstrated effectiveness of current regulations, new, unnecessary regulation will lead to costly and easily preventable losses in investment. Thousands of jobs are at stake: According to a report by Cambridge Energy Research Associates, between 2010 and 2015 the top ten states for producing unconventional gas will experience a compound annual employment growth rate of nearly 8 percent, whereas total U.S. employment is expected to grow at an average of only 1.6 percent during the same time period.

Creating additional, onerous regulations or banning hydraulic fracturing would impose an unnecessary burden on the economy while producing little or no additional protection of air quality. States should base their hydraulic fracturing policies on the best available science and dismiss unfounded claims driven by fear and misinformation.

The following documents provide additional information about the safety and benefits of hydraulic fracturing.

Ten Principles of Energy Policy
In this Legislative Principles booklet, Heartland Institute President Joseph Bast identifies the ten most important energy issues facing the nation and outlines the policy actions that will lead to the highest, most efficient production at the lowest cost to consumers. 

Research & Commentary: Hydraulic Fracturing (Fracking) of Natural Gas
Heartland Institute Senior Fellow James M. Taylor provides a primer on hydraulic fracturing, discussing the overstated environmental impact and providing useful links to additional research on the topic. 

Study: No Adverse Health Effects from Natural Gas Drilling in Fort Worth
In this Heartlander digital magazine article, Bonner R. Cohen, a senior fellow at the National Center for Public Policy Research, reports the findings of the Eastern Research Group’s $1 million air quality study, thought to be the most comprehensive analysis of the effects of urban natural gas drilling. After investigating the effects of offsite air pollution levels, the study concludes natural gas drilling sites release pollutants that are of low toxicity and do not reach levels that cause adverse health effects. 

Why Anti-Fracking Groups Are Shifting Their Story from Water to Air Quality
The issue of groundwater aquifer contamination from hydraulic fracturing has lost traction after several regulators retracted their allegations. Attorney Colin Harris, who has dedicated much of his career to Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act issues, explains why new sound bites opposing hydraulic fracturing because of alleged air quality problems are equally unfounded. 

Highest Incidence Rates of Total Nonfatal Occupational Illness Cases, 2010
This table from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics documents the top 25 industries with the highest rates of occupational illness. Even though employees of the oil and gas industry work upwards of 60 to 70 hours per week, year-’round, on hydraulic fracturing sites, the industry is not on the list, ranking below pet stores and outerwear manufacturing.

Fracking: Air Quality
Testifying before the New York State legislature, author Sandra Steingraber claims air pollution is an inevitable consequence of hydraulic fracturing. She says compromised air quality creates a higher risk for pre-term birth and cognitive deficits, and thus hydraulic fracturing will drive up the costs of public education and health care.

Data Show Public Health Impacts from Natural Gas Production Overstated
In a blog post for, Sue Midley of the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance and toxicologist Uni Blake report that between 2000 and 2009, natural gas development in the Barnett Shale increased more than 2,000 percent, and during that same period, nearby residents experienced improvement in key health indicators.

For further information on this subject, visit the Environment & Climate News Web site at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

Nothing in this message is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. If you have any questions about this issue or the Heartland Web site, contact Heartland Institute Policy Analyst Taylor Smith at [email protected] or 312/377-4000.