Air pollution from the oil and gas sector in the US has substantial adverse impacts on air quality, human health, and health costs, a study has determined.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the US oil and gas sector has boosted exports to the point where the US is at the top of the world’s energy-exporting nations.
A study led by Boston University School of Public Health (BUSPH) has been looking into what this expansion in production means for air quality and human health.
While there is extensive research on the climate effects of methane produced by the sector – a key contributor to air pollution – few studies have measured the health effects of the air pollution that oil and gas activity generates.
The new findings estimate that the pollutants nitrogen oxide (NO2), fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone (O3) from US oil and gas production contributed to 7,500 excess deaths, 410,000 asthma attacks and 2,200 new cases of childhood asthma across the country. This equates to $77bn (£61bn) in annual health costs, it was estimated.
Comparatively, this total is three times the estimated climate impact costs of methane emissions from oil and gas operations.
These impacts were largely concentrated in areas with significant oil and gas production, such as southwest Pennsylvania, Texas and Eastern Colorado.
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.
“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,” said study senior author Saravanan Arunachalam.
The results suggest that policies designed to reduce emissions from the sector, such as forthcoming regulations designed to reduce methane, may produce immediate and significant air quality benefits to human health along with significant climate benefits.
Corresponding author on the study Jonathan Buonocore said: “The health impacts are not just from the combustion of oil and gas. In order for energy, air quality and decarbonisation policies to successfully protect health, they need to incorporate health impacts across this full life cycle.”
Among the three pollutants measured in the study, NO2 was the highest contributor to overall health impacts, followed by ozone then PM2.5. The vast majority of these effects were related to mortality.
“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 US Environmental Protection Agency strengthen and finalise 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.”
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