Fracking helped save the lives of roughly 11,000 Americans each winter from 2005 to 2010, according to a recent National Bureau of Economic Research paper. How? By driving down energy prices and helping them affordably heat their homes.
Demographers have long observed that low-income people die at higher rates during the winter. This “excess winter mortality” has a simple, heartbreaking cause — people keep their dwellings uncomfortably cold to reduce their heating bills. Constant exposure to chilly temperatures makes it more likely that people will contract and succumb to respiratory and heart disease.
Many low-income Americans also skimp on food and health care to afford their heating bills. Thirty-one percent of households struggle to pay energy bills. About 17 percent of U.S. households spend more than 10 percent of their total income on energy costs, mostly on heating.
A staggering share of the U.S. population lives on the edge. Forty million Americans are unsure whether they’ll have enough money to buy food. As many as 40 percent of older adults sometimes fail to adhere to their prescription regimens because of cost concerns.
Even relatively minor changes in heating costs can dramatically affect these Americans’ health. A $20 per month fluctuation in utility bills could determine whether seniors can afford to refill a prescription or stock their pantries.
Fortunately, for these low-income households, energy companies began perfecting hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” in the 2000s. This drilling technique involves pumping water and sand into underground shale rock formations. The water creates tiny cracks in the rock, and the sand props open those fissures, enabling companies to extract immense quantities of oil and natural gas. In 2018, energy companies produced about 50 percent more natural gas than they did at the turn of the century. The boom in shale gas production caused prices to plummet. The cost of heating a home with natural gas fell 42 percent between 2005 and 2010, relative to the cost of using electric heat.
Thanks to this price drop, there was a 1.6 percent decrease in winter deaths in homes heated by natural gas. And since most Americans heat their homes with natural gas, overall winter mortality dropped 0.9 percent.
The study concludes that “the drop in natural gas prices in the late 2000s, induced largely by the boom in shale gas production, averted 11,000 winter deaths per year” in the United States.
And that’s only counting the lives saved by lower energy prices — fracking also has spared thousands of people from lung cancer. In recent years, many utility companies have switched from coal to cheaper natural gas, which burns considerably cleaner and releases far fewer toxic chemicals. As many as 52,000 Americans die prematurely each year due to coal-related emissions.
Fracking is helping save thousands of lives each year. Lawmakers and regulators can’t afford to ignore these health benefits when making policies that affect natural gas production.