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Op-Ed: From farms to pharma, how natural gas fuels public health

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Natural gas is saving lives and benefiting your health in ways you might never imagine.

It has revolutionized the war against global hunger, driven American research, development and manufacturing, and provided invaluable affordability and reliability that supports our economy. During this National Public Health Week, it’s worth recognizing the foundational role natural gas plays in advancing our health and wellbeing by serving as a source of affordable energy and an indispensable contributor to agricultural and health care innovations and operations.

In the health care sector, more than 271 billion cubic feet of natural gas are used annually. That’s more than the consumption of at least 14 individual states. Without natural gas, health care costs would rise dramatically; the cost to American consumers would be in the tens of billions, according to AGA’s Advancing America’s Healthcare study which discovered that electrifying hospitals would increase operating costs by $16.3 billion from 2026 to 2050, cause a $32.2 billion drop in U.S. gross domestic product and drive a significant loss of employment. More expensive health care and fewer jobs would mean decreased access to care across large swaths of the country.

When it comes to reliability, it’s notable that there isn’t a single all-electric hospital in the United States today. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, many of New York’s hospitals were forced to shut down when the power failed, plunging 50 million people into a blackout. Montefiore Medical Center was an exception – the hospital’s natural gas combined heat and power generator kept lights on and machines operational, delivering critical life-saving care in the face of the storm.

America’s health care system also depends on natural gas for pharmaceutical needs. According to AGA’s Advancing America’s Pharmaceuticals study, 99% of pharmaceutical feedstocks and reagents are derived from petrochemicals such as natural gas. Beyond pharmaceutical drugs themselves, the 129 billion face masks, 300 billion medical gloves, and 979 vaccine syringes used each year are all made using petrochemicals. Without the affordable energy and irreplaceable feedstocks that natural gas and other petrochemicals provide, Americans would see higher medical costs and less availability of drugs and key medical supplies.

Nutrition, the bedrock of public health, is also inextricably linked to natural gas – and innovation fueled by our energy revolutionized the way we think about hunger worldwide. The discovery of the Haber-Bosch process in the early 1900s enabled the conversion of natural gas to ammonia-based synthetic fertilizers, allowing American corn yields to increase six-fold in the last 70 years. This process of creating fertilizer is fueled by natural gas, with up to 80% of the energy used to produce nitrogen-based fertilizers delivered by natural gas, according to AGA’s Advancing America’s Agriculture study.

Thanks to this technology, we are winning the global war on hunger. Today, fewer than 2.5% of Americans are undernourished, and malnutrition in developing countries has decreased from around 30% in 1970 to 12% in 2015. While supply chain pressures over recent years have impacted progress abroad, America’s strength as a producer of natural gas and its fertilizer biproducts has insulated our families from significant harm.

Even at the very height of the COVID-19 pandemic shortages, American families could still find food on the shelves and meet their basic needs thanks to the resiliency and strength of domestic agriculture.

Even the most basic use of natural gas – reliable and affordable heat in the home – has had a positive and significant impact on public health. According to a 2023 study by the National Institutes of Health, “lower home heating price reduces winter mortality, driven mostly by cardiovascular and respiratory causes. Our estimates imply that the 42% drop in the natural gas price in the late 2000s, mostly driven by the shale gas boom, averted 12,500 deaths per year in the United States.” With the price of heating using natural gas predicted to remain one-half to one-third as much as alternatives such as electricity through at least 2050, natural gas is on track to save hundreds of thousands of American lives over the next three decades and beyond.

There have been multiple proposals at the state and federal levels in recent years that would hurt the public health of Americans by making it hard or impossible to produce, transport, or use natural gas in many locales – both in the home and as critical feedstocks for fertilizers, personal protective equipment, and other products we rely on. Congress, individual states, and American stakeholders can and must act to protect the enormous advantages natural gas provides to our economy and public health by ensuring that policies and regulations do not eliminate this vital resource from the table.

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