The annual US health cost of oil and gas production is $77B – here’s how we fix that

The US oil and gas sector was responsible for $77 billion in total health impacts in 2016, according to a newly released study.

Few studies have measured the effects of oil and gas production – not even factoring in actual fossil fuel usage – on air quality, human health, and health costs, but this new study does.

The study is called “Air pollution and health impacts of oil & gas production in the United States.” It was published in the journal Environmental Research: Health and was led by the Boston University School of Public Health, the University of North Carolina Institute for the Environment, PSE Healthy Energy, and the Environmental Defense Fund.

The researchers examined air quality and human health impacts associated with ozone, fine particulate matter, and nitrogen dioxide from the US oil and gas sector in 2016. They compared that impact with that of the associated methane emissions.

The study’s abstract states:

We find that air pollution in 2016 from the oil and gas sector in the US resulted in 410,000 asthma exacerbations, 2,200 new cases of childhood asthma, and 7,500 excess deaths, with $77 billion in total health impacts. NO2 [nitrogen dioxide] was the highest contributor to health impacts (37%) followed by ozone (35%), and then PM2.5 [fine particulate matter] (28%).

When monetized, these air quality health impacts of oil and gas production exceeded estimated climate impact costs from methane leakage by a factor of 3. 

Impacts were largely concentrated in areas with significant oil and gas production, such as southwestern Pennsylvania, Texas, and eastern Colorado. But the health effects also extended into densely populated cities with little or no gas activity, such as Chicago, New York City, Baltimore, Washington, DC, and Orlando.

The five states with the highest impacts from oil and gas pollution – all have significant oil and gas activity – were Texas, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Louisiana. However, Illinois and New York – states that produce very little oil and gas – still landed in the sixth and eighth spots. Pollution doesn’t respect state borders.

Saravanan Arunachalam, research professor at University of North Carolina Institute for the Environment, said:

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.

Texas is No. 1 in both wind and solar production – but the Texas legislature is determined to choke its thriving renewable energy sector and subsidize fossil fuels with new bills that were recently approved by its state senate. These bills will pass because the governor of Texas staunchly backs fossil fuels. And that’s going to guarantee higher energy bills for consumers and increase emissions from natural gas use. (And it was mostly natural gas that failed during Texas’ big outage in winter 2021.)

The direction that Texas is headed is not a direction any legislature should take. Every US state should be working to reduce emissions by switching to renewables in order to protect people and the environment. The study results suggest that emissions reduction policies for oil and gas, such as the forthcoming Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) methane regulations, may produce immediate and significant air quality benefits for both human health and the climate.

Study co-author Ananya Roy, senior health scientist at Environmental Defense Fund, said:

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.

It’s critical that the US EPA 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.

Read more: A dramatic new EPA rule will force up to 60% of new US car sales to be EVs in just 7 years

Photo: Juan Mt on Pexels.com

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