Yesterday, the Obama administration came out with its plans to regulate methane from oil and gas wells. These rules will be the first of their kind, and underscore two of the most important problems with fracking-enabled oil and gas production — its impact on the climate and its impact on human health.
Oil and gas operations across the country are a major source of air pollution of all types. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), coupled with nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide (together known as NOx) and sunlight, produce ozone, which is hazardous to human health and can cause premature death. Exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas, found in many shale oil and gas formations, can cause difficulty in breathing and eye and throat irritation. High levels of exposure can be fatal.
Families living with oil and gas development nearby experience these health impacts when the wind blows these toxic chemicals near homes and schools. Earthworks has documented this VOC pollution using our FLIR Gasfinder camera — you can hear the stories of people living with this type of development and see the invisible pollution we've captured using infrared technology.
Oil and gas operations also release methane, through leaks from the wells, pipelines and tanks, or from venting or improperly flaring gas associated with drilling operations. Methane is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions contributing to climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports that methane is 86 times worse than carbon dioxide over a 20-year timespan.
The Obama administration's proposals to curb methane are a step in the right direction, and could have real a real impact on the health of people impacted by development in places like Texas, Wyoming and Pennsylvania. But, they do not go far enough. Not only do they not regulate existing sources of air pollution, this administration continues to tout an “all of the above” energy strategy that harms our planet, human health and our economy.
We need rules that force the oil and gas industry to internalize the cost of doing business, as opposed to allowing communities to pay the price for living near extraction. But, these rules are just a stopgap measure until we wean ourselves from fossil fuels and fully commit to clean, renewable energy.
Recent studies have shown that clean energy is cost-competitive with oil and gas, and we know that there is a vision out there for how every state in the union can power themselves by using energy that is less harmful to public health and steers us away from climate catastrophe.
President Obama must take action to set us on the right path now, and Earthworks will support any meaningful efforts to regulate an industry that has largely been left to police itself. But, much of the real work to move us away from fossil fuels will be done by the next President, who we hope is boldly committed to moving us beyond coal, oil and gas.