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Calls to boost natural gas can’t ignore fuel combustion’s deadly impacts

by Shelley Robbins

Natural gas is in the headlines as the war in Ukraine continues, cementing the U.S. as the world leader in gas exports. At home, groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce argue for more gas-fired power, citing the need for reliability in advance of the summer cooling season. Not making headlines, however, are several studies that show fossil fuel combustion from power plants is killing thousands of Americans every single year.

In April, the American Lung Association (ALA) released its “Zeroing in on Healthy Air” report, a look at the impact of reducing fossil-fuel emissions from both transportation and electric power. The ALA and consultant ICF modelled health outcomes associated with shifting to zero-emissions transportation and power, and found that nationally, 110,000 premature deaths could be avoided between 2020 and 2050. Eliminating those emissions would also reap health benefits valued at a staggering $1.2 trillion.

Then in mid-May, a new study by researchers at the University of Wisconsin at Madison found that eliminating pollution from fossil fuel combustion in power plants could avoid as many as 11,600 premature deaths in the U.S. every year, with an annual value of $132 billion. The researchers looked at five additional sectors: industrial fuel use; residential and commercial fuel use; on-road vehicles; non-road vehicles; as well as oil and gas production and refining. They found that exposure to the small particulates emitted by combustion in these six sectors combined resulted in 205,000 deaths in one year. And, due to the disparities in the siting of power plants and other facilities, the victims of this pollution are far more often low-income and people of color.

Combustion emissions harm the body in many ways. The small particulates (called PM2.5) are much smaller than the tiny air sacs in our lungs, and they can enter every system in the body. PM2.5 is linked to heart attacks and strokes as well as kidney disease, premature birth and Parkinson’s disease. PM2.5 is also an endocrine disruptor, so it contributes to diabetes and obesity. These tiny particles cause massive harm in the populations that live near the emitters.

The fossil fuel industry has spent years (as well as millions of ratepayer dollars) convincing policymakers that controlling these emissions is simply too expensive. Now, faced with the existential threat of obsolescence as renewables and a multitude of energy storage technologies emerge, the industry is taking advantage of “disaster capitalism” to not only survive but expand and gain policy victories. Disaster capitalism is described by journalist and activist Naomi Klein as the corporate world using the public’s disorientation during a crisis to achieve control and gain additional policy and regulatory rollbacks.

According to Frank Macchiarola, the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) senior vice president for policy, economics and regulatory affairs, the Ukraine invasion underscores API’s assertion that the surge in U.S. oil and natural gas production “has provided the nation with energy security and helped the energy security of American allies while helping lower prices at home.”

It appears the industry misses the irony: Capitalizing on a war that is killing innocent people — in order to promote increased use of natural gas — is also killing innocent people.

Meanwhile, the American Gas Association continues to declare that natural gas has a “smaller environmental impact than other energy sources” on their Environment and Climate Change web page, and they pay social media influencers to promote gas appliances. This public relations effort is working. Unfortunately, the U.S. Energy Information Agency forecasts a 3 percent increase in domestic natural gas consumption for 2022.

This disconnect between energy policy and health impacts cannot continue. Viable and reliable non-combustion solutions exist, and they are less expensive, even when we ignore the massive health and economic impacts of fossil fuel combustion. These solutions include aggressive energy efficiency that reduces total energy load, demand-response programs that pay customers to shift their usage away from times that require the dirtiest and least efficient plants to run, and increasing access to solar, wind and battery storage, to name a few.

Now, more than ever before, it is time to turn away from combustion and invest in these clean alternatives. Our lives depend on it.

Shelley Hudson Robbins is a project director at Clean Energy Group. Her work focuses on the Phase Out Peakers Project and the Resilient Power Project. She has also worked for Upstate Forever in South Carolina, the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, the Florida Governor’s Office (defending the state from offshore drilling), and the Florida Public Service Commission.

This article was published in collaboration with the Island Press Urban Resilience Project, which is supported by The Kresge Foundation and The JPB Foundation. It was originally published June 7, 2022 on The Hill.

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A changing climate means a changing society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project (URP) is committed to a greener, fairer future. www.islandpress.org/URP