The United States is one of the world’s largest producers of oil and gas, but this comes at a high cost to the environment and human health. A new study has revealed that air pollution from the oil and gas sector is responsible for thousands of premature deaths, asthma cases, and billions of dollars in health damages every year.
The study, published in the journal Environmental Research: Health, was led by researchers from 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. It is the first to quantify the health impacts of air pollution from oil and gas production across the entire U.S.
The researchers used a sophisticated computer model to estimate the emissions of nitrogen oxide (NO2), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and ozone (O3) from oil and gas activities in 2016. They then calculated how these pollutants affected air quality and human health in different regions and states.
The results were alarming. The study found that oil and gas emissions contributed to 7,500 excess deaths, 410,000 asthma attacks, and 2,200 new cases of childhood asthma in 2016. These health impacts cost the U.S. $77 billion in annual health costs, which is three times the estimated climate impact costs of methane emissions from oil and gas operations.
The study also showed that the health effects were not limited to areas with high oil and gas production, such as Texas, Pennsylvania, and Colorado. The pollutants also traveled long distances and affected densely populated cities with little or no gas activity, such as Chicago, New York City, Baltimore, Washington DC, and Orlando.
One of the co-authors of the study, Dr. Jonathan Buonocore, a research associate at BUSPH, said: “Our study shows that oil and gas emissions have substantial adverse impacts on air quality and human health across the U.S., not just in areas with high production. These impacts are likely to increase as oil and gas production continues to grow in the future.”
The study also highlighted the potential benefits of reducing emissions from the oil and gas sector. The researchers estimated that if oil and gas emissions were cut by 50%, there would be 3,800 fewer deaths, 210,000 fewer asthma attacks, and $40 billion less in health costs per year.
Another co-author of the study, Dr. Drew Shindell, a professor at UNC-IE and a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, said: “Our study provides strong evidence that reducing oil and gas emissions can have immediate and significant benefits for human health and climate. Policymakers should consider these co-benefits when designing emissions reduction strategies for this sector.”
The study comes at a critical time when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is expected to propose new regulations to limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that also contributes to air pollution by forming ozone. The study suggests that these regulations could have far-reaching implications for public health and climate change mitigation.