Testimony: Robert W. Howarth, Ph.D. at Forum on Hydraulic Fracturing (Sen. Avella, NYS Senate Democrats)

18 Jul 2012
Robert Howarth

My name is Robert Howarth. I am unable to be in New York City today due to pressing commitments at Cornell, but I ask that you consider this written statement. I hold a Ph.D. jointly from the MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. I have been a tenured faculty member at Cornell University since 1985, and have held an endowed faculty position, the "David R. Atkinson Professor of Ecology & Environmental Biology," since 1993. I am also the Founding Editor of the journal Biogeochemistry and an adjunct senior research scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA. I have performed research and published scientific papers on environmental risk assessment and the consequences of pollution, including the effects of oil and gas development, since the mid 1970s. I have previously directed a national EPA Center of Excellence on environmental risk assessment and served as the lead consultant for the State of Alaska on the Exxon Valdez oil spill. I have served on 10 committees and panels of the US National Academy of Sciences, including one on global change and one on oil and gas pollution, and have chaired two of these committees. I have testified before the US House and Senate on many occasions, and I have served as an expert witness in federal court cases on the environmental consequences of oil and gas development three times. Currently, I represent the State of New York on the Science and Technology Advisory Committee of the Chesapeake Bay Program, under appointments from Governors Pataki, Patterson, and Cuomo. And I chair the International Council of Science's project on the environmental consequences of biofuels.


I have closely examined the consequences of shale-gas development. Over the past 3 years, I have published 3 peer-reviewed papers on the environmental consequences of shale gas, including an invited piece in the prestigious journal Nature, and was the lead author of a background paper for the National Climate Assessment about the greenhouse gas footprint of shale gas. I have briefed the Administrator of the US EPA and the President's Science advisor on this topic, and I have given invited testimony on shale gas before the European Union Parliament and before the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform of the House of Representatives, Congress of the United States. In December 2011, Time magazine named me as one of the 50 "people who matter" because of my research on the greenhouse gas consequences of shale gas.


I have repeatedly tried to communicate the results of my research to Governor Cuomo and members of his administration. I was the lead signer among 50 scientists who wrote to the Governor in 2011 about our concerns with water pollution issues, and what we believe to be a misconception by the Governor and his staff on the distinction between the watersheds that serve NY City and the City of Syracuse, and those that serve the rest of the State (copy attached). Unfortunately, we received no reply. I also have testified twice in DEC hearings about deficiencies in both the original and the revised sGEIS for unconventional gas development in New York.



Hydraulic fracturing is not new. The process has existed for many decades, using relatively small volumes of water, to stimulate gas and oil wells to increase production. What is new is the combination of high-precision, directional drilling with high-volume hydraulic fracturing. This new combination uses many times more water and chemical additives for the fracturing, often 5 million gallons or more per well. This is 50 to 100 times more fracturing fluid than used to stimulate conventional gas wells. The high-volume hydraulic fracturing combined with directional drilling has allowed the exploitation of gas resources not previously available, such as shale gas. This combination of technologies to obtain shale gas is very new, first used in Texas just over a decade ago. And over half of all the shale gas that has ever been developed in the world has been produced in the last 3 years.


Because the development of shale gas is so new, the science on this process and its environmental consequences is also very new. Almost all peer-reviewed scientific publications on the environmental and public health consequences of shale gas have been published in the past 15 months, since April 2011. Almost none of these were included in the draft sGEIS on shale gas by NY DEC. A list of these papers and their abstracts can be found on the web site of Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy ( In this statement, I will briefly summarize the findings of this new, developing science.



Methane and global warming: As you sit here in the heat of NY City today, know that the world's scientists are more convinced than ever that human activity is causing global warming, and that unless society acts urgently, global warming will cause massive disruption to the world's food supply, economies, and natural ecosystems. Methane is a very large part of the problem, and a part that still goes unrecognized by too many in government, including those in the government of New York State.


Methane is released to the atmosphere during development, transport, storage, and use of natural gas. Methane is an incredibly powerful greenhouse gas, and as a result of methane emissions, both shale gas and conventional natural gas have larger greenhouse gas footprints than other fossil fuels such as oil and coal (when viewed over an integrated 20-year time frame after emission). Recent climate models point to the urgency in reducing methane emissions; without immediate global reductions in methane pollution, these models indicate that the Earth will warm to 1.5 degrees C above the long-term average within 15 years or so, and to 2 degrees C within 35 to 40 years. This is a dangerous level of warming, a level that greatly increases the likelihood of positive feedbacks in the climate system, leading to an acceleration of further warming. Reducing emissions of methane and other short-lived radiatively active materials such as black carbon is the best way to reduce this dangerous warming. Currently, almost 40% of all atmospheric methane released by human activity in the US comes from the natural gas industry. Most studies indicate that shale gas development releases 40% to 60% more methane than does conventional natural gas. To address the huge threat posed by global warming, I believe it is essential to move as quickly as possible away from natural gas towards renewable energy resources, and to not further develop shale gas unless major (and expensive) steps are taken to greatly reduce methane emissions.


Unfortunately, the information on global warming in the draft sGEIS relies heavily on industry web sites for their information, rather than the peer-reviewed literature or reports from the United Nations. As a result, the draft sGEIS severely underestimates the size of the greenhouse gas emissions that could result from shale-gas development. Perhaps this is not surprising, since according to a recent news article by Bob Boyle, the lead person in charge of the sGEIS (Bradley Field of the DEC's Division of Mineral Sources) does not even believe in human-caused climate change (


Surface water pollution: Shale gas development has already caused significant surface water pollution. The additives used in hydraulic fracturing include toxic and carcinogenic substances, such as formaldehyde, benzene, xylene, and monoethanolamine. As importantly, frac fluids extract chemical substances from shales, including toxic and carcinogenic aromatic hydrocarbons, toxic metals, and radioactive materials such as uranium, thorium, and radium. Some of these materials are released to the environment when blowouts and other accidents occur. A greater route of release and exposure comes from disposal of frac-return fluids. Approximately 20%, or 1 million gallons or so, of the material used in hydraulic fracturing flows back to the surface in the first few weeks after fracturing, with all of the added and extracted chemical substances. In Texas, where most high-volume hydraulic fracturing has occurred so far, these wastes are disposed of by injection into old, abandoned conventional gas wells. In the Marcellus formation in Pennsylvania, some waste has been injected in such disposal wells, but suitable disposal wells are rare in the northeast, and much more has been disposed of in municipal sewage treatment plants. Such treatment plants simply are not designed to handle these toxic wastes. A significant amount of the wastes flow through the plants and are released into rivers. Public drinking water supplies in the Pittsburg area have already been affected, with elevated bromides from the waste interacting with chlorination in public drinking water systems to produce highly dangerous brominated organic compounds. As a result, the PA DEP and US EPA have put a stop to using sewage plants to dispose of frac wastes, as of the summer of 2011. But suitable alternative disposal methods have yet to be developed.


Groundwater contamination: There are several reports of contamination of drinking water wells and surface aquifers by fracking fluids, particularly in Pennsylvania and in Colorado. The extent of such contamination, and the mechanisms which might lead to such contamination, remain poorly studied. Most scientists familiar with the existing, public data (note that a lot of information is not publicly available) believe the contamination is likely caused by well and cementing failures. A recently published model suggests there may also be a threat of migration of contaminated fracking fluids from depth to surface drinking water aquifers over time through fissures and cracks. The US EPA is currently pursuing a comprehensive study of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing, and intends to release a preliminary report later this year and a final report in 2014.


Shale gas development also leads to contamination of drinking water wells, as indicated by a May 2011 study published by Duke University scientists in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Methane concentrations were frequently elevated in drinking water wells within 1 km of shale gas operations, sometimes at levels great enough to pose a significant risk of explosion.


Local air pollution: The development of shale gas and other unconventional forms of natural gas (from coal-bed seams and tight-sand formations) results in significant local air pollution. One concern is the release of benzene and other aromatic hydrocarbons to the atmosphere from routine operations. State officials in Texas have reported benzene concentrations in the air near gas operations that sometimes exceed acute toxicity standards. In Pennsylvania, reported benzene concentrations are so far lower, quite likely because the rate of gas development has been much lower. Nonetheless, reported atmospheric benzene levels near some drilling operations in Pennsylvania are high enough to pose risk of cancer from chronic exposure.


Ozone pollution is also of great concern. Ozone is created in the atmosphere when nitrogen pollution and organic compounds react under strong sunlight. Current ozone pollution in the US is estimated to cause 30,000 premature deaths each year, almost the same death rate as from automobile accidents. Unconventional natural gas development from hydraulic fracturing increases ozone pollution due to leakage of organic compounds to the air. The problem has been particularly acute in Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado in recent years, with ozone concentrations in the winter due to natural gas development being higher than observed in New York City.


Radon in natural gas supplies: Radon gas is a carcinogen, and exposure to radon is the largest source of public exposure to ionizing radiation in the US. Currently, radon in homes in the US results in an estimated 20,000 deaths per year. Natural gas contains radon, and using natural gas for home cooking is one route of home exposure. Shale gas from the Marcellus formation, and perhaps from other formations as well, has much greater levels of radon than does conventional natural gas. This is because the Marcellus shale is particularly rich in uranium and thorium, and radon is formed from the decay of these radioactive materials. Radon has a half life of 3.8 days, so with sufficiently long storage, the radon decays away and poses less public health risk. However, the rapid movement of natural gas from the Marcellus shale to northeastern cities would seem to pose a major public health risk, one that certainly deserves much greater study and scrutiny.



I thank Senator Avella for the opportunity to submit a statement for today, and I am sorry I cannot be in New York City in person.



Robert W. Howarth, Ph.D.




Related Content

Howarth et al. 2012. Methane Emissions from Natural Gas Systems. Background paper for The National Climate Assessment (NCA)



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