Air quality concerns of unconventional oil and natural gas production†
Increased use of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) in unconventional oil and natural gas (O & NG) development from coal, sandstone, and shale deposits in the United States (US) has created environmental concerns over water and air quality impacts. In this perspective we focus on how the production of unconventional O & NG affects air quality. We pay particular attention to shale gas as this type of development has transformed natural gas production in the US and is set to become important in the rest of the world. A variety of potential emission sources can be spread over tens of thousands of acres of a production area and this complicates assessment of local and regional air quality impacts. We outline upstream activities including drilling, completion and production. After contrasting the context for development activities in the US and Europe we explore the use of inventories for determining air emissions. Location and scale of analysis is important, as O & NG production emissions in some US basins account for nearly 100% of the pollution burden, whereas in other basins these activities make up less than 10% of total air emissions. While emission inventories are beneficial to quantifying air emissions from a particular source category, they do have limitations when determining air quality impacts from a large area. Air monitoring is essential, not only to validate inventories, but also to measure impacts. We describe the use of measurements, including ground-based mobile monitoring, network stations, airborne, and satellite platforms for measuring air quality impacts. We identify nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds (VOC), ozone, hazardous air pollutants (HAP), and methane as pollutants of concern related to O & NG activities. These pollutants can contribute to air quality concerns and they may be regulated in ambient air, due to human health or climate forcing concerns. Close to well pads, emissions are concentrated and exposure to a wide range of pollutants is possible. Public health protection is improved when emissions are controlled and facilities are located away from where people live. Based on lessons learned in the US we outline an approach for future unconventional O & NG development that includes regulation, assessment and monitoring.
- This article is part of the themed collection: Editors Choice: Planetary Health