In an era where global initiatives are pushing for a transition from fossil fuels to cleaner energy sources, the United States is experiencing a concerning trend.
Despite these efforts, oil and gas (O&G) production in the country is approaching record levels, raising alarms among health experts who worry about the potential implications of this growth on air quality and human health.
While the climate effects of methane produced by O&G operations have been extensively researched, there is a lack of studies examining the health effects of the air pollution generated by these activities.
Aiming to address this gap, a collaborative study led by the Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH), the University of North Carolina Institute for the Environment (UNC-IE), PSE Healthy Energy, and Environmental Defense Fund has been published in the journal Environmental Research: Health.
This groundbreaking study reveals that air pollution from the oil and gas sector in the United States has significant detrimental effects on air quality, human health, and associated healthcare costs.
The researchers found that nitrogen oxide (NO2), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and ozone (O3) emitted from U.S. oil and gas production contributed to 7,500 excess deaths, 410,000 asthma attacks, and 2,200 new cases of childhood asthma across the nation in 2016.
Taking into account respiratory and cardiovascular-related hospitalizations, adverse pregnancy outcomes, and other health issues, the study estimates that oil and gas production is responsible for $77 billion in annual health costs. This figure is three times the estimated climate impact costs of methane emissions from oil and gas operations.
The consequences of O&G-related pollution are not evenly distributed, with the most significant impacts concentrated in areas with substantial oil and gas production. Some of the most affected regions include southwest Pennsylvania, Texas, and Eastern Colorado.
However, the health effects of this pollution do not stop at the borders of these production areas. Densely populated cities with little or no gas activity, such as Chicago, New York City, Baltimore, Washington DC, and Orlando, also experience negative health outcomes due to pollution from O&G operations.
The study has indicated that policies aimed at reducing oil and gas (O&G) emissions, such as the forthcoming EPA methane regulations, could produce immediate and significant air quality benefits for human health, in addition to the substantial climate benefits.
The researchers behind the study are urging policymakers to take these “co-benefits” into account when developing future emissions reduction strategies.
The scientists also emphasize that focusing solely on end-of-pipe pollution controls during combustion in power plants, vehicles, buildings, and industries only addresses a part of the problem.
According to study corresponding author Jonathan Buonocore, assistant professor of environmental health at BUSPH, “These substantial impacts from oil and gas production show that there are serious consequences across the full life cycle of oil and gas, from ‘well to wheels,’ ‘well to power plant,’ and ‘well to furnace.’”
“The health impacts are not just from the combustion of oil and gas. In order for energy, air quality, and decarbonization policies to successfully protect health, they need to incorporate health impacts across this full life cycle.”
The research identified the five states with the highest impacts from O&G pollution as Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. However, interestingly, Illinois and New York – states that produce very little O&G – still ranked 6th and 8th, respectively.
Study senior author Saravanan Arunachalam, research professor at UNC-IE, highlighted the importance of inter-state cooperation. “The fact that air pollution and health impacts cross state boundaries indicates a strong need for regional to nationwide coordination. States that have the highest emissions are not necessarily always the ones with the highest health risk due to these emissions, although Texas ranks first in both.”
The study utilized a novel modeling framework that included the health impacts of NO2 and employed an advanced model better suited to capturing the chemistry of emissions from the O&G sector.
Among the three pollutants studied, NO2 was found to be the highest contributor to overall health impacts, accounting for 37% of the effects, followed by ozone at 35%, and PM2.5 at 28%. The majority of these effects were related to mortality.
NO2 contributes to the formation of PM2.5 and ozone, so strategies aimed at reducing O&G-produced NO2 could be effective in mitigating health impacts. State regulations addressing precursor NO2 emissions from the O&G sector could help alleviate childhood asthma cases in communities located near emission sources and provide secondary ozone and PM2.5 health benefits in downwind areas.
“Curbing oil and gas emissions is one of the fastest, most cost-effective ways to reduce methane and other air pollutants, which improves air quality, protects public health and slows climate change,” said study co-author Ananya Roy, senior health scientist at EDF.
“It’s critical that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency strengthen and finalize its proposed oil and gas methane rules as quickly as possible. These proposed rules should build from leading state approaches in Colorado and New Mexico and go further to end pollution from the practice of routine flaring.”
According to the authors, future studies should focus on learning more about health impacts across the full life cycle of oil and gas production. They should also focus on the benefits of additional oil and gas pollution control strategies.
“There are technologies and strategies to reduce methane leaks, emissions from compressor stations, or emissions from other sources, such as ponds and dehydrators,” Buonocore said. “Each of these strategies will have different effects on the levels of different pollutants that get emitted.”
The study did not examine the health impacts of emissions, such as benzene and formaldehyde. Arunachalam notes there is much more work to be done in this area as well.
“Exposure to these pollutants which have been detected near oil and gas wells can cause cancer and several other adverse health impacts, and quantifying them will demonstrate even higher public health benefits of controlling emissions from this sector,” said Arunachalam.
This research serves as a stark reminder that the urgency to transition away from fossil fuels is not only driven by climate concerns but also by the pressing need to protect public health. As global efforts continue to shift towards cleaner energy sources, the findings of this study highlight the importance of addressing the health impacts of oil and gas production on communities across the United States.
Oil and gas production has significant environmental impacts beyond the direct effects on air quality and human health. Some of the most notable environmental consequences include:
The combustion of fossil fuels, including oil and gas, releases greenhouse gases (GHGs), primarily carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4), into the atmosphere. These gases trap heat, causing global temperatures to rise and leading to various climate change-related problems such as more frequent and severe heatwaves, storms, and floods.
Oil and gas extraction, particularly through hydraulic fracturing (fracking), can contaminate groundwater and surface water sources with chemicals, heavy metals, and radioactive materials. This poses risks to aquatic ecosystems and can also affect the quality of drinking water for nearby communities.
Accidental spills, leaks, or improper waste disposal during oil and gas production can lead to soil contamination. This can harm local ecosystems, reduce soil fertility, and pose risks to human health through the food chain.
The construction of oil and gas infrastructure, such as drilling sites, pipelines, and roads, often requires clearing large areas of land, leading to habitat destruction and fragmentation. This can negatively impact local ecosystems, reduce biodiversity, and disrupt the migration patterns of various species.
Oil and gas operations often generate significant noise and light pollution, which can disturb wildlife and disrupt their natural behaviors, such as mating, feeding, and migration.
The extraction of finite resources like oil and gas contributes to their eventual depletion, which can lead to economic, geopolitical, and environmental challenges as the world becomes more dependent on these dwindling resources.
In some cases, oil and gas extraction processes, particularly wastewater injection associated with hydraulic fracturing, have been linked to induced seismic activity or human-induced earthquakes.
Addressing the environmental impacts of oil and gas production requires transitioning to cleaner and more sustainable energy sources, implementing stricter regulations, and developing new technologies to minimize the adverse effects of these activities.
It is essential to consider the full life cycle of oil and gas production and to explore alternative energy sources to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and mitigate their harmful impacts on the environment.