Oil and Gas: What We Know is Concerning, but What We Don’t is Worse

Samantha Rubright, MPH, CPH, , UCS | January 25, 2016, 4:31 pm EST
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In a family of health professionals, very early on I found myself fascinated by the ways in which our environment can affect our health: how emissions in China can impact California’s air quality, how certain cancers are tied to environmental exposures, and the ways in which well-designed infrastructures can encourage physical activity. According to the World Health Organization, almost 25% of all diseases are linked to environmental sources, possibly more so when climate change impacts are considered.

Lifecycle impacts

Flaring from an oil drilling site, North Dakota. Photo by Nick Lund, NPCA

Flaring from an oil drilling site, North Dakota. Photo by Nick Lund, NPCA

The recent Paris climate agreement has helped to thrust the issue of climate change into international awareness. As countries promise to reduce their contributions to global emissions, the environment should be something we all now consider and incorporate into our daily lives. We should be more aware of how our energy choices impact the environment, and in turn, our health. Contradicting this mantra, however, the U.S. continues to promote and extract domestic oil and gas, even when the market is flooded with this product.

Why? Because the collective “we” demands it.

Americans want cheap energy. We want to be able to heat our homes and cook our meals without breaking the bank. We see sleek ads promoting domestic oil and natural gas as the ultimate solution to ending our reliance on foreign-produced energy resources. What we do not see are the impacts this growth in unconventional drilling has on people and the environment.

Localized air pollution from a well pad, West Virginia. Photo by Bill Hughes, FracTracker Alliance.

Localized air pollution from a well pad, West Virginia. Photo by Bill Hughes, FracTracker Alliance.

As a visitor flying in to southwestern Pennsylvania, for example, you might see a drilling rig and some equipment on a well pad. You might even see this well flaring from the highway. What you won’t see, unless you live near this industry, are the impacts caused by dense unconventional drilling over a longer timeframe.

Part of the issue with unconventional drilling is its magnitude and scope, with approximately 1.7 million active oil and gas wells in the U.S. Yes, money can be made by some townships, landowners, and local businesses. Yes, there can be benefits for mineral rights owners who sign well-reviewed leases. When the process fails, however, there can also be serious problems:

Frac sand mining from the sky, Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance. LightHawk provided aerial support: www.lighthawk.org.

Frac sand mining from the sky, Wisconsin. Photo by Ted Auch, FracTracker Alliance. LightHawk provided aerial support

And finally,  in October 2015, a massive leak was discovered at a natural gas storage well in California. At the time of this article, the leak has not been fixed, releasing natural gas into the atmosphere at a rate similar to the pollution emitted from the operation of 4.5 million cars per day. This situation is just one example where drilling has adversely affected the environment. While often touted as a cleaner fossil fuel option, extracting, storing, and distributing natural gas and other hydrocarbons can unintentionally release methane – the key component of natural gas and a major contributor to climate change.

Climate change, itself, has health implications. Examples include the capacity to:

Likely, many more impacts of unconventional drilling go undiscovered.

Uncertainty and inaction

With the known environmental health and climate change threats surrounding unconventional drilling, the U.S. should be actively moving away from fossil fuels toward cleaner energy options.

Unconventional oil and gas drilling rig, well pad, and farm from the sky, Pennsylvania. Photo by Bob Donnan, redchief7@verizon.net

Unconventional oil and gas drilling rig, well pad, and farm from the sky, Pennsylvania. Photo by Bob Donnan

Unfortunately, a lack of transparency, research gaps, demand for fossil fuels, regulatory conflicts, money, and politics make the path winding and convoluted.

I cannot offer a quick fix to this complicated issue, but here are a few steps people can take:

  • Regulators and politicians should tour drilling and sand mining sites in their districts. Afterward, meeting with community members who live near these operations would give a broader sense of the impacts.
  • Scientists should continue to conduct research on oil and gas impacts, energy alternatives, and climate change.
  • Everyone should demand accountability from lawmakers and regulatory agencies to protect public health and the environment.
  • Residents should reduce their energy footprint and invest in renewable resources where possible.

Between the direct and indirect problems I discussed earlier, large-scale oil and gas operations including unconventional drilling will affect everyone in some way. If we continue to demand that such risky extraction techniques fill our energy gaps, environmental health may be the one to suffer. What we know about this broad issue is concerning. What we don’t is worse.

Samantha Rubright, MPH, CPH serves as The FracTracker Alliance’s Manager of Communications and Partnerships, and is finishing her doctorate in environmental health from the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. Learn more about oil and gas impacts at www.fractracker.org. You can follow her on Twitter @SamMaloneMPH

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