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They conclude that air quality damages from all natural gas production in the state amounted to between $7.2 million and $32 million in 2011. By contrast, the four largest coal-fired electricity generation plants in the state were the sources of nearly $1.5 billion in damages in 2008. The whole natural gas industry is responsible for just 2 percent of Pennsylvania's smog-causing volatile organic compounds, 5 percent of its nitrogen oxides, and 1 percent of the small particulates emitted by all industry in the state in 2008. (The RAND researchers could not get comparable 2011 data for the total air-pollution damage, so they used the closest year with available information.) That's not nothing, but converting just one coal-fired plant to burn natural gas would do far more to improve Pennsylvania's air quality than shutting down the state's entire gas industry.
Falsehood 4: Fracking causes cancer. The FWW letter hints at this, but the most incendiary claim along these lines was made by Josh Fox in his short "emergency film," The Sky Is Pink (2012). Fox intones, "In Texas, as throughout the United States, cancer rates fell. Except in one place: in the Barnett Shale. The five counties where there was the most drilling saw a rise in breast cancer throughout the counties."
The claim is entirely specious. Fox apparently based his lightly sourced assertion on a single newspaper article. Even that article garbled the data, reporting that six counties in the western Dallas-Fort Worth area have the highest rates of invasive breast cancer in Texas, rising all the way from 58.7 cases per 100,000 people in 2005 to about 60.7 per 100,000 in 2008. Typically breast cancer rates are reported as per 100,000 women, which would roughly double the rates cited in the article to 117.4 and 121.4. Meanwhile, the incidence of breast cancer among all Texas women hovered around 116 per 100,000 between 2005 and 2009. The U.S. rate was 125.7 per 100,000 women.
To fact-check Fox's claims, the Associated Press turned to two Texas researchers, Simon Craddock Lee, a professor of medical anthropology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, and David Risser, an epidemiologist with the Texas Cancer Registry. Both said that there was no evidence of an increase in breast cancer in the counties cited by Fox.
Falsehood 5: Natural gas is worse than coal. This particular claim was launched in 2011 with a hastily cobbled-together study by three anti-fracking researchers at Cornell. Their argument is that leaking methane, whose global warming potential is much greater than that of carbon dioxide, more than entirely offsets whatever reductions in carbon dioxide emissions would be achieved by, for example, switching from coal to gas to generate electricity. The FWW letter claims that calling natural gas "clean" energy is "misleading," but unlike the Cornell researchers the group concedes that burning natural gas "emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal."
The FWW came much closer to the truth than the Cornell crew did. A comprehensive analysis published in November 2012 by researchers associated with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory found that "the life cycle greenhouse gas emissions associated with electricity generated from Barnett Shale gas extracted in 2009 were found to be very similar to conventional natural gas and less than half those of coal-fired electricity generation." With respect to global warming, producing and burning natural gas from fracked wells is much better than burning coal.
Make no mistake: Any industrial process can go awry, usually through human error. And not everybody is a saint: Venal people will try short cuts that end up harming the innocent. When mistakes are made or short cuts taken, the culprits should be punished and the victims fully compensated for their losses.
But don't assume those villains are the norm. Over 500,000 gas wells are currently operating in the United States. Most of them manage to avoid blowing up houses, poisoning drinking water, making it hard to breathe, causing cancer, or being worse than coal.