Natural gas and Public Health – What are the facts?

The Climate Council’s latest report Kicking the Gas Habits: How Gas is Harming our Health’ is a report with no new data and is full of misleading claims.

Not only does it have a limited research base, it is irresponsible in its scaremongering, unrealistic and unnecessary in its objective for a sudden transition out of all fossil fuels and ignores what consumers actually want.

Gas has been safely explored, produced, processed and used in our industries and homes for generations. The increased role gas is playing in Australia and across the globe is actually helping us achieve our lower carbon future.

Unconventional gas development

Australian governments have invested heavily in reviewing the process and impacts of unconventional gas developments using the best expert and scientific advice, and since 2011, 14 separate inquiries and investigations have been undertaken. These investigations have added depth and knowledge to our understanding of hydraulic fracturing, and the potential impacts and social, health, safety, economic and environmental risks.

This research has been robust and of the highest quality.

To that end, extensive research has been made available in Australia to demonstrate the safety of unconventional gas development, particularly around hydraulic fracturing and fracking fluids, wastewater and impacts on human health.

Counter to the Council’s claims, the fluids used in hydraulic fracturing are comprised of more than 99.5% water and sand. The small amount (0.49%) of chemical additive included is designed to support the transportation of fluid, prevents blockages and prevents corrosion over time.

Over time, research across Australia’s states and territories continues to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of unconventional gas development:

The technical literature on horizontal wells and hydraulic fracturing adapted to shale is extensive, covering 30 years of development, with over 550 papers on shale hydraulic fracturing and 3000 papers on aspects of horizontal wells.” Engineering Energy: Unconventional Gas Production, A study of shale gas in Australia, Australian Council of Learned Academies (2013)

Regulated petroleum activities have been occurring in Western Australia for the past 60 years without compromising health, safety or the environment. During that period, nearly 780 hydraulic fracture stimulation activities have been conducted without major incident.” Government of Western Australia Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (2016)

Overall, the findings support a broad conclusion that the international standards for the design, construction and operation of an individual petroleum well (incorporating hydraulic fracture stimulation) if properly executed and located, generally limit risks to the environment and people to a low level.” Independent Scientific Panel Inquiry into Hydraulic Fracture Stimulation in Western Australia Final Report to the Western Australian Government (2018)

Considerable research has also explored the impact of hydraulic fracturing on water resources. In Western Australia and Queensland’s Surat Basin region, separate inquiries have found that when properly regulated, and provided wells have been constructed according to regulatory standards, the risk to groundwater from hydraulic fracturing is low. This evidence extends to coal seam gas development and aquifers – when properly regulated, risks to health remain low.

Unproven health claims

The Climate Council’s report suggests that there are studies in the United States that suggest that living close to unconventional gas development leads to an increased incidence or severity of health issues (the ‘dose-response’ relationship).

These claims are unproven and unjustified.

In fact, a bank of research from reputable think tanks and government agencies in the United States confirms that these studies are not based on scientific accuracy or are reliable.

Fracking Research

For example, US Think Tank Resources for the Future (RFF) reviewed 32 of the more prominent shale-focused studies on birth outcomes, cancers, asthma, and other health effects, including migraines and hospitalisation. Cumulatively, none of those major categories of studies were deemed “high quality,” while studies on birth defects, hospitalisations and multiple symptoms were cumulatively deemed to be of “low quality.”

Overall, we find that the literature does not provide strong evidence regarding specific health impacts and is largely unable to establish mechanisms for any potential health effects.

The RFF specifically states that the current body of research on hydraulic fracturing and public health consists of researchers identifying activities and impacts, while failing to acknowledge contribution of the concentration and exposure to risks.

Despite the real concerns over health risks of living near shale development,researchers have not identified the pathway such as air emissions, water contamination, psychological stress, or any other cause —through which an individual’s health may be a detected.”

These conclusions are shared by a number of other researchers in the United States, including at the Colorado Department of Public and Environment, Pennsylvania Department of Health and the Health Effects Institute. In other cases, researchers themselves admit that the research findings do not replicate reality, with one researcher admitting it is “unlikely people would ever be exposed to doses quite as high.”

Insufficient evidence, flawed research methodology and modest scientific findings are not grounds on which to base generalised statements that impact the Australian community’s perception of unconventional gas development and activity on human health.

Indoor air quality

One of the Climate Council report’s biggest claims is the impact of gas on indoor air quality, and links gas usage at home and in schools to increased asthma risk. In our homes, it claims air quality risks from gas appliances are akin to living with indoor cigarette smoke.

However, there is considerable overseas evidence to counter the claims made by the Council.

A report published by the American Gas Association (AGA) in late 2020 says: “While combustion emissions from gas ranges, ovens, and cooktops can contribute to some degree to emissions of recognised pollutants, there are no documented risks to respiratory health from natural gas stoves from the regulatory and advisory agencies and organisations responsible for protecting residential consumer health and safety.”

Cooking food on any stove – gas or electric – produces particulate pollutants from steam, smoke, grease, and food.  It is always recommended all stoves have an active range hood or kitchen ventilation system.

The AGA’s report also finds association between the presence of a natural gas cooking appliance and increases in asthma in children is not supported by data-driven investigations covering actual appliance usage, emission rates, exposures, and the control of other factors that are well established for contributing to asthma and other respiratory system threats.

It cites a 2013 study by the National Library of Medicine, which is the world’s largest biomedical library. Cooking Fuels and Prevalence of Asthma: A Global Analysis of Phase Three of the International Study of Asthma and Allergies in Childhood (ISAAC) analysed 512,707 primary and secondary school children from 108 centres in 47 countries, and found there is “no evidence of an association between the use of gas as a cooking fuel and either asthma symptoms or asthma diagnosis.

 A BMJ Journals study of asthmatic adults called Gas stove use and respiratory health among adults with asthma in NHANES III found:

  • There was no apparent association between gas stove use and pulmonary function impairment among adults with asthma.
  • In adults with asthma, there was also no relation between gas stove use and respiratory symptoms.

Therefore, switching to electric appliances from gas does not solve the issue of improving indoor air quality because there are more variables and factors that naturally contribute to emissions generation. Rather, use of the existing technology, such as ventilation devices, could help to ameliorate indoor air quality.

Gas is supplying the world’s energy and reducing emissions

In 2020, Australia’s Federal Government reiterated its support for gas, confirming it would be a major part of Australia’s economic growth post-COVID. Prime Minister Scott Morrison referred to gas as a “critical enabler of Australia’s economy.”

“Our competitive advantage has always been based on affordable, reliable energy. As we turn to our economic recovery from COVID-19, affordable gas will play a central role in re-establishing the strong economy we need for jobs growth, funding government services and opportunities for all.”

Gas is also playing a role globally in our journey to a lower carbon world. As a cleaner energy source, it will be part of the future of electricity generation, partnering with renewables to bring reliability, stability and a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions in the electricity sector.

The switch to natural gas for electricity generation prevented 95 million tons of CO2 emissions in 2018, according to an International Energy Agency (IEA) report. The report found that global energy emissions increased 1.7 percent in that year largely attributable to increased global energy demand. And as IEA explained, without the switch to natural gas, “the increase in emissions would have been more than 15 percent greater.”

Australia’s rich gas resources means we have an abundance of affordable, reliable natural gas, which is safely used in our homes for heating, hot water, and cooking, and for electricity for stoves, appliances and so on.

Natural gas provides a ready source of stable and ongoing (24 hours a day / 7 days per week) power as well as secure, stable and affordable energy for our communities.

Natural gas plays a critical role in Australia’s electricity supply. In 2019, of the 265,117-gigawatt hours (GWh) of electricity generated in Australia, natural gas accounted for 21 percent. It is the second largest source of electricity generation. In that year, natural gas’ share of electricity generation equalled the contribution of all renewables (bioenergy, wind, hydro, solar and geothermal) combined.

Electricity Grid

In Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australia, natural gas is the most significant fuel for electricity in accounting,  for 61 percent, 58 percent and 49 percent of generation, respectively in 2019.

Gas’ flexible generation and reliability make it an ideal partner for intermittent renewable energy sources such as wind and solar to match supply and demand. Natural gas also allows for more renewables to be integrated into the grid due to its short response time.

While it’s more expensive than coal, natural gas is an affordable, abundant and cleaner source of energy. Natural gas powered generation for electricity emits up to half the emissions of traditional generation – benefits that align with the Federal Government’s plan to ensure affordable, reliable and secure electricity supply into the future.

So, for now, a natural gas ban in Australia would certainly not be effective in reducing emissions.

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