Cumulative environmental and employment impacts of the shale gas boom

Abstract

Natural gas has become the largest fuel source for electricity generation in the United States and accounts for a third of energy production and consumption. However, the environmental and socioeconomic impacts across the supply chain and over the boom-and-bust cycle have not been comprehensively characterized. To provide insight for long-term decision-making for energy transitions, we estimate the cumulative effects of the shale gas boom in the Appalachian basin from 2004 to 2016 on air quality, climate change and employment. We find that air quality effects (1,200 to 4,600 deaths; US$23 billion +99%/−164%) and employment effects (469,000 job-years ±30%; US$21 billion ±30%) follow the boom-and-bust cycle, while climate impacts (US$12 billion to 94 billion) persist for generations well beyond the period of natural gas activity. Employment effects concentrate in rural areas where production occurs. However, almost half of cumulative premature mortality due to air pollution is downwind of these areas, occurring in urban regions of the northeast. The cumulative effects of methane and carbon dioxide emissions on global mean temperature over a 30-yr time horizon are nearly equivalent but over the long term, the cumulative climate impact is largely due to carbon dioxide. We estimate that a tax on production of US$2 per thousand cubic feet (+172%/−76%) would compensate for cumulative climate and air quality externalities across the supply chain.

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Fig. 1: Air quality emissions and impacts across the natural gas supply chain from 2004 to 2016.
Fig. 2: Climate change impacts across the natural gas supply chain from 2004 to 2016.
Fig. 3: Employment impacts across the natural gas supply chain from 2004 to 2016.
Fig. 4: Comparison of air, climate and employment impacts.
Fig. 5: Climate change and air quality production tax rates.

Data availability

The datasets generated during and/or analysed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

Code availability

Sample code developed for the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

This research was conducted as part of the Center for Air, Climate and Energy Solutions, which is supported by assistance agreement no. RD83587301 awarded by the US EPA. It has not been formally reviewed by EPA. The views expressed in this document are solely those of authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the Agency. EPA does not endorse any products or commercial services mentioned in this publication. We also acknowledge the Center for Climate and Energy Decision Making (grant no. SES-00949710) for support for this work.

Author information

A.L.R. secured project funding. E.N.M., J.L.C. and A.L.R. designed the study. E.N.M. acquired and analysed the data and modelled impacts. E.N.M., J.L.C., A.L.R. and N.Z.M. interpreted the results. E.N.M. drafted the manuscript. E.N.M., J.L.C., A.L.R., N.Z.M. and I.M.L.A. revised the manuscript.

Correspondence to Erin N. Mayfield.

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Competing interests

J.L.C. serves as the Chair of the Board of Directors of the Center for Responsible Shale Development. The authors declare no other competing interests.

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Mayfield, E.N., Cohon, J.L., Muller, N.Z. et al. Cumulative environmental and employment impacts of the shale gas boom. Nat Sustain 2, 1122–1131 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-019-0420-1

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