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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

And we begin this hour with the debate over clean energy. Natural gas has long been touted as a cleaner, greener alternative to coal. Abundant stores of gas sit beneath vast stretches of the country, including Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, and burning it at a power plant to make electricity does not create nearly as much pollution as burning coal does.

But NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports that getting all that gas out of the ground is a different matter entirely.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN: In this hilly countryside of the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, Kristen Judy and her mom Pam are getting an early whiff of what could become a big air pollution problem.

Ms. KRISTEN JUDY: It just hits you in the face and about knocks you over.

Ms. PAM JUDY: It smells like some kind of a petroleum, but you can't pinpoint it.

(Soundbite of machinery)

SHOGREN: They're talking about fumes from a gas compressor station that went in three years ago just 700 feet from their house.

Pam Judy takes me there.

Ms. P. JUDY: You can see how the wind is blowing. It's blowing that direction, and you can see the exhaust coming there. It's going toward our property.

SHOGREN: White exhaust rises from a building where engines compress the gas for a pipeline. Wavy, transparent plumes seep from a big tank that holds liquid extracted from the gas.

Across the road, the same company runs another compressor station. A quarter-mile away, a different company is drilling a new well and burning the gas in a huge flare that lights up the night sky at Judy's house.

Ms. P. JUDY: This property belonged to my great-grandparents. I waited years to get a piece of this property. Truly, within three years of moving here, it's been destroyed.

SHOGREN: First Judy, her husband and two grown kids started getting headaches. Then, fatigue set in. They've also had dizziness, nausea and nosebleeds.

You open your mouth, and I could see it's red in there.

Ms. P. JUDY: Yes. It stays that way. I've had a sore throat for so long that I don't know what it would be to not have a sore throat.

SHOGREN: For a week last summer, Pennsylvania state officials monitored the air at Judy's house and the compressor station. They found volatile organic compounds, benzene and lots of other toxic chemicals they say almost surely came from the compressor station.

Their report says levels were low and don't pose any short-term health risks, but their study doesn't address cumulative effects or cancer risks.

Ms. P. JUDY: They know the chemicals are here, but yet, they say the levels aren't high enough. Well, that was a snippet in time. To me, any level is too high.

SHOGREN: Energy Corporation of America runs the two compressor stations near Judy's house. A top company executive says he's got two valid permits. He refused to be interviewed.

In an email, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said officials recently met with the company to discuss pollution controls. She refused to give details of those discussions.

Carnegie Mellon University engineering Professor Allen Robinson agrees with Judy that the state's monitoring may not capture the true risks to local people.

Professor ALLEN ROBINSON (Engineering, Carnegie Mellon University): I think these really sort of short snapshots that people have been doing provides a potentially very misleading view.

SHOGREN: And the problem is not just local.

As companies race to produce gas from the enormous Marcellus shale formation, they're operating thousands of new pollution sources. Compressor stations, drill rigs, processing plants, pipelines already leak pollution across large stretches of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Lots more could be on the way if the industry spreads to other states and ramps up as projected.

Robinson says the nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds from all those sources could contribute to regional ozone or smog problems.

Prof. ROBINSON: This isn't just, you know, next to where the development is actually happening, the poor person living downwind of the compressor or something like that. This is ozone levels in Philadelphia and D.C. and New York City and places like that.

SHOGREN: Robinson and his graduate students are analyzing these impacts. Early drafts of their work predict significant effects by 2020.

That's particularly troubling since ozone levels already are unhealthy in many downwind areas. Ozone is linked to lots of health problems from asthma attacks to heart failure to premature deaths.

But Robinson only has to look out his office window to see that natural gas can improve air quality, too. For 100 years, the central heating plant next to his university burned coal and sent lots of noxious exhaust into downtown Pittsburgh. Just recently, it switched to natural gas. The air quality got a lot better.

Prof. ROBINSON: If we use that natural gas to displace older coal-fired power plants without emissions controls, like the one we're looking at right here, then there are going to be some benefits as well from traditional air pollution perspective. And so I think it's sort of a complicated calculus.

SHOGREN: Still, Robinson worries that in the rush to produce the gas, the country isn't giving enough attention to the risks for people's health.

Other parts of the country already are seeing their air degraded by natural gas production.

Sublette County, Wyoming, is home to a booming gas development - and not much else besides antelope and sage grouse. For 13 days this winter, ozone levels there were unhealthy.

Utah's Uintah Basin also started having spikes of unhealthy air. Some studies show that new gas production could be on the way to causing air pollution problems in portions of Colorado, Texas and Louisiana as well.

Prof. ROBINSON: There's lots of examples of this through human history where we go, hmm, maybe we didn't really want to do that.

Ms. KATHRYN KLABER (Executive Director, Marcellus Shale Coalition): I reject the notion of widespread or serious pollution.

SHOGREN: Kathryn Klaber is the executive director of the producers' trade group Marcellus Shale Coalition. Even she acknowledges there is some pollution from Marcellus production given how big it is.

Ms. KLABER: But certainly not at a point where the air emissions impacts could possibly trump the benefits to this country's air quality that comes from using this source. You can't find a cleaner-burning fossil fuel, and it's very important that we keep our eye on the ball.

SHOGREN: Utility lawyer John Hanger is a booster for natural gas. He used to head Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection. He warns that the industry could be hurt if it fails to control air pollution.

Mr. JOHN HANGER (Lawyer): The industry won't be able to grow in the way it needs to grow unless it uses the cleanest technologies. It will run into a legal brick wall.

SHOGREN: Hanger says that's because big cities downwind from Marcellus already struggle with air pollution. They'll sue anyone who makes their problem worse.

Hanger says local, state and federal governments must require the cleanest practices. For instance, those compressor stations near the Judys could run on electricity.

A crackdown could be on the way. This summer, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is planning to propose new rules designed to cut pollution from natural gas operations.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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