Five Facts About Natural Gas Development & Radon Claims

A new study – led by Brian Schwartz, a fellow at the staunchly anti-oil and natural gas Post Carbon Institute (PCI) – is a classic display of advocacy-driven “research.”

It’s unfortunate, yet not unexpected, that some anti-shale activists continue to make claims based purely on hypothetic and perhaps pre-determined narrative-driven ‘cause and effect’ conclusions. Thankfully, however, unbiased data and independent scientific findings are readily available.

INDEPENDENT PA DEP STUDY: “LITTLE POTENTIAL” OF RADON RISK FROM SHALE. On January 15, 2015, the Pa. Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) announced results of its TENORM study, which analyzed naturally occurring levels of radioactivity associated with oil and natural gas development in Pennsylvania. It concluded there is little potential for harm to workers or the public from radiation exposure due to oil and gas development.

  • Specific to the issue of radon, DEP determined that “there is little potential for additional radon exposure to the public due to the use of natural gas extracted from geologic formations located in Pennsylvania.”
  • DEP also determined that “Rn concentrations in natural gas sampled at Pennsylvania well sites during this study are consistent with the Rn concentrations in natural gas reported by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) for Pennsylvania, which range from 1 to 79 pCi/L with an overall median of 37 pCi/L” and notes, again, that “there is little potential for additional Rn exposure to workers and members of the public on or near natural gas well sites.”
  • The USA Today underscores these facts: Authors of today’s study acknowledge that their findings conflict with those of a January study from Pennsylvania’s DEP, which reported that “there is little potential for additional radon exposure to the public due to the use of natural gas extracted from geologic formations located in Pennsylvania.”

SUGGESTIONS NOT BASED ON ACTUAL GEOLOGICAL, HISTORICAL FACTORS. As StateImpact/NPR reports, Kevin Stewart, director of environmental health at the American Lung Association of the Mid-Atlantic, “questioned the study’s assertion that higher radon levels could be traced to the start of the fracking boom.” Mr. Stewart holds a chemical engineering with high honors from Princeton University. This from NPR’s story:

  • Since the study reported that buildings using well water had a 21 percent higher radon concentration than those using municipal systems averaged over the whole study period – which began more than a decade before Pennsylvania’s fracking boom – it does not necessarily indicate a link between fracking and radon, Stewart said. “These differences in the data were observed going back to the 1980s, long before the expansion of unconventional extraction,” he said.

A LONGSTANDING, WELL-KNOWN ISSUE. According to DEP, the Commonwealth has one of the most serious radon problems in the country. An estimated 40 percent of Pennsylvania homes have radon levels above EPA’s action guideline of 4 picocuries per liter (pCi/L). More information here from DEP on the issue. And as Penn State University experts note, “One study of radon in over 900 Pennsylvania water wells found that 78% exceeded 300 pCi/L, 52% exceeded 1,000 pCi/L and 10% exceeded 5,000 pCi/L.”

QUESTIONABLE, INCOMPLETE METHODOLGY. To their credit, despite what was blasted across a press release headline, the report notes that the Reading Prong region – which includes Berks, Lehigh and Northampton Counties, where no drilling activity occurs – has the highest recorded indoor radon levels. From the report:

  • When data were aggregated to county categories, on average, Reading Prong counties had the highest indoor radon concentrations. Nearly 300,000 homes had a first basement test result that exceeded the EPA action level. We observed fluctuating radon concentrations throughout the study period; low Marcellus activity counties consistently had lower radon concentrations than both high and no Marcellus activity counties, before and after drilling began.”
  • Let’s, for a moment, follow the authors’ logic. “Fracking”, as they mischaracterize the entire process of shale development, corresponds with higher levels of radon and, according to them, could be a cause. However, as their own data suggests, flawed as it may be, “low Marcellus activity counties” have lower radon levels than regions with absolutely no shale development.
  • This, among many other factors, raises serious questions about the study’s suggestions. Nonetheless, the authors do note, appropriately, that they “did not perform any environmental radon measurements, specifically directed at evaluating Marcellus or well water hypotheses.”

CONSIDER THE SOURCE/MESSENGER. As noted, Schwartz is a PCI fellow, along with Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org and considered one of the nation’s most vocal anti-oil and natural activists. According to McKibben, PCI “is doing the most important work imaginable, and doing it well.” So what principles guide PCI’s advocacy work?

  • A March 13, 2015 post from the organization – under the headline “Only Less Will Do” – makes this alarming declaration: “Growth is our problem, then the only real solution is to shrink the economy and reduce population.”
  • And from a very basic transparency perspective, today’s study does not disclose Schwartz’s PCI ties, which is troubling. However, the Houston Chronicle does – thankfully – provide this important context, informing its readers that Schwartz is “a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute.”

BONUS FACTS ON RADON/RADIOACTIVITY SOURCES.

  • Pa.: No red flags over radioactivity in 7 rivers: Tests of water in Pa. downriver from sewage treatment plants that handle wastewater from natural gas drilling raised no red flags for radioactivity, the state DEP said Monday. All of the samples, taken in November and December, showed levels at or below the normal naturally occurring background levels of radioactivity, the agency said. All samples also showed levels below the federal drinking water standard for Radium 226 and 228, it said. (Associated Press, 3/7/11)
  • “What people need to know is there is background radiation everywhere from your countertop to your banana peel,” Cam Hantiuk [Tervita’s Westmoreland Landfill in Belle Vernon] said. (KDKA-TV, 12/10/13)
  • There’s radon in granite countertops,” said former Ohio EPA Director Scott Nally. (Columbus Dispatch, 1/27/14)
  • Radiation levels in the Marcellus shale itself are sufficiently low that they are not expected to affect the public or drill site workers. … Overall, it is unlikely that the general public will ever come into contact with NORM in any significant concentrations. (Paleontological Research Institution, 8/11)

While there is much interest and debate surrounding responsible and tightly-regulated shale development, it’s a conversation that must be grounded in fact and science – not hyperbole or sensationalism. As President Obama’s interior secretary, Sally Jewell, a trained petroleum engineer, stated recently, “There is a lot of misinformation about fracking.” She’s absolutely right.