Found: The Missing Link to Oil/Gas Health Effects

May 15, 2023

US News and World Report:

Pollutants produced by the U.S. oil and gas industry cause thousands of deaths and cost the country tens of billions in health care expenses, a new study reports.

Nitrogen dioxide (NO2), fine particulate matter and ozone all contribute to air pollution, and all are emitted as part of oil and gas production, the researchers said.

The new study estimates that the oil and gas industry contributed to 7,500 excess deaths, 410,000 asthma attacks and 2,200 new cases of childhood asthma across the United States in 2016.

All told, oil and gas production cost the United States $77 billion annually in health care damages, when factoring in related heart and lung hospitalizations, adverse pregnancy outcomes and other illnesses.

That total cost is three times the estimated climate impact costs of methane emissions from oil and gas operations.

“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,’” said co-researcher Jonathan Buonocore, an assistant professor of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health.

“The health impacts are not just from the combustion of oil and gas,” Buonocore added in a university news release. “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 results indicate that emissions strategies that focus on end-of-pipe pollution controls — such as in power plants, vehicles, buildings, and industry — are only addressing part of the problem, the researchers said.

The health impacts observed in this study were largely concentrated in areas with significant oil and gas production, such as southwest Pennsylvania, Texas and Eastern Colorado, the study authors noted.

However, the health effects also extended into densely populated cities with little or no gas activity, such as Chicago, New York City, Baltimore, Washington D.C., and Orlando, Fla.

The five states with the highest impacts from the petroleum industry were Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma and Louisiana, and all those host significant oil and gas activity.

But Illinois and New York — states that produce very little oil and gas — still landed in the 6th and 8th spots, according to the report.

“The fact that air pollution and health impacts cross state boundaries indicates a strong need for regional to nationwide coordination,” said senior study author Saravanan Arunachalam, a research professor at the University of North Carolina Institute for the Environment.

“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,” Arunachalam said.

Oil and gas production is nearing record levels in the United States, despite efforts to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy, the researchers noted.


The intrigue: Lead author Jonathan Buonocore, an assistant professor at Boston University School of Public Health, tells Axios that the effects were not limited to areas with active oil and gas production. 

  • Cases of premature deaths, asthma attacks and childhood asthma also spread regionally to affect densely populated cities with little to no gas activity, which included Chicago, New York City, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Orlando, according to Buonocore. 
  • Plus, Illinois and New York — states that produce “very little oil and gas,” per the study — were among the top eight most impacted health hot spots. The $77 billion in annual health outcomes also includes hospitalizations and emergency room visits.
  • “This is a major cost that’s not being accounted for” in most discussions of oil and gas, says Buonocore.

Zoom in: Ananya Roy, a senior health scientist at EDF and co-author of the study, tells Axios that their paper shows that air pollution “doesn’t respect state boundaries.” 

Meanwhile: The EPA is in the final stage of establishing nationwide rules to limit air pollution from oil and gas development, with a primary focus on methane — a powerful greenhouse gas

“In limiting methane emissions from production sites, you’re also limiting these other criteria pollutants that this study looks at,” according to Jon Goldstein, EDF’s senior director of regulatory and legislative affairs.

He notes that it “boosts the climate case and the public health case” for tougher methane-emissions regulations on a national scale. 

Yes, but: The federal agency has not proposed eliminating that pollution from gas flaring. Goldstein tells Axios they’d like to see the EPA “really phasing out that practice” in the final rule expected later this year. 

The bottom line: “What’s become really clear is that the oil and gas sector has climate, air pollution and health impacts,” says Roy. “As they evaluate policies in the sector, they need to account for all of them.”


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