Natural gas wells and related processing sites in Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia are spewing "invisible" plumes of air pollution, according to an investigation by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.
The Annapolis-based environmental group hired an infrared videographer to check 15 natural gas drilling and compressor sites in the Marcellus shale region of the three states. The special camera picked up the heat signature of gases billowing into the air from 11 of the sites, or nearly three out of four.
Robert Howarth, an ecologist at Cornell University in New York, said the gases being released in the video most likely contained methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and other other hydrocarbons, including possibly benzene and toluene.
"This would certainly contribute to smog, ozone… and it's putting out carcinogenic substances," Howarth told the foundation, according to a post by Tom Pelton on CBF's blog Bay Daily. "I would not want to be breathing the air downstream of those rigs."
Howarth co-authored a study last year that estimated hydraulic fracturing for natural gas in Marcellus shale formations allows 4 to 8 percent of the methane to escape into the atmosphere, where it contributes to global warming.
Harry Campbell, the foundation's senior scientist in Pennsylvania, said in Pelton's blog post that the video provides new evidence of the need for a comprehensive federal study of the human health and environmental impacts of drilling in the Marcellus shale. CBF has petitioned the White House Council on Environmental Quality and EPA for a Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement, as the study is known. To date, it has received no response..
Maryland has imposed a de facto moratorium on hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," for gas in western Maryland's Marcellus shale deposits until it completes a three-year study of the potential environmental impacts and needed controls. Drilling has taken off in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, though, and controversy has swirled over its impact on neighboring residents, on drinking water wells and streams.
One of the sites filmed is a natural gas processing center in the town of Accident in Garrett County, MD. Though not directly related to the debate over hydraulic fracturing, the compressor station is often mentioned by gas industry supporters as an example of the industry's benign environmental footprint. Pelton reports that the facility reported to the Maryland Department of the Environment that it released 1,038 tons of methane in 2010, more than double the 483 tons of methane it reported releasing in 2009.