Report: oil & gas industry growth into rural areas brings air pollution and associated health threats

CATF & Earthworks release *Country Living, Dirty Air: Oil & Gas Pollution in Rural America*

WASHINGTON, July 12 – In many parts of  America’s rural countryside, pollution from the booming oil and gas industry is causing an increase in asthma attacks and increased risks of cancer and respiratory diseases.  That’s the key finding of a new report released today from Clean Air Task Force (CATF) and Earthworks.  

Country Living, Dirty Air: Oil and Gas Pollution in Rural America” builds on two earlier reports from CATF — Gasping for Breath (2016) and Fossil Fumes (2017) — and Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Threat Map and demonstrates how, even in sparsely populated areas in the West and Midwest, that significant health impacts can be observed.

“In the past we quantified the health impacts of ozone and toxic air pollution using data and models, and we found that oil and gas air pollution led to an increase in asthma attacks and a heightened cancer risk,” said Lesley Fleischman, CATF Technical Analyst and lead author of Country Living, Dirty Air. “Now, this report tells the stories of people living with this air pollution every day.”

“When we think of toxic air we usually think of cities,” said Earthworks policy director Lauren Pagel. She continued, “Thanks to oil and gas industry pollution, we need to think again. These six families, and the people living in oil and gas impacted rural areas across the United States demand it.”

The following communities are featured in the report:

  • In Karnes County, Texas, part of the Eagle Ford Shale formation, one long-time resident has noticed an enormous difference in the air since the Eagle Ford boom began in 2011. After the boom, he has developed many common symptoms from VOC and smog pollution, including sinus issues, headaches and fatigue.
  • In San Juan County, New Mexico, the health impacts of this pollution fromoil and gas development infrastructure – the highest in the country – are linked by public health experts to a rise in childhood asthma and respiratory emergency room visits.
  • Ever since unconventional gas extraction arrived in Uintah County, Utah, communities have reported worsening air conditions and alarming trends in local public health, especially during winter inversions. A study by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality found that oil and gas-related sources were responsible for the majority of ozone-causing emissions.
  • The back door of one long-time resident of Washington County, Pennsylvania is less than 500 feet from a fracked well named Mad Dog 2020, and his health is now a major concern. Gassy emissions from the Mad Dog well pad that have led to the worst respiratory issues he’s ever experienced and have been recently confirmed by infrared imaging cameras as ‘emissions of concern.’
  • In Noble County, Ohio, oil and gas production has expanded 50-fold in  the past 10 years, such that, according to the Ohio EPA, levels of harmful VOCs like benzene and toluene are now sufficiently high enough that Noble County’s air quality is “higher than downtown Chicago.” The pollution has forced one chronically ill couple to sell their idyllic long-time farmstead and retreat to a cabin in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee.
  • With the boom of oil and gas development in the Permian Basin of West Texas, now the number one oil producing region in the US, VOC pollution has increased more than 6 times and benzene emissions have increased more than 68 times since 2011. In the backyard of one couple living in Reeves County, one well bears a sign: “Caution, Poison Gas.” But there are no current state rules in Texas to control oil and gas methane pollution, and none likely in the future.

“This report confirms what many of my constituents already know: Air pollution is not limited to densely populated urban centers. It is critical that we monitor and study health impacts related to environmental exposures of Texans in rural areas and prioritize their health and safety equally with that of their urban counterparts. What’s more, implementing methods to minimize methane emissions is an important strategy in averting climate change and protecting our environment and community health,” said Texas State Senator Judith Zaffirini.

“When we envision our rural communities, we think of clear skies, open pastures, and the ability to inhale clean, healthy air.  Unfortunately, the increase in oil and gas drilling has left our rural citizens facing the same poor air quality as we’ve seen in big cities.  We know the effects of poor air quality – increases in asthma, heart disease, cancer risk, and more,” said Kelly Kuhns member of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. “Now is the time for policy makers to put aside partisan beliefs and put public health first.  We must strengthen commonsense regulations to limit methane and VOC pollution – this is no longer just about the environment, it’s about the health of our nation,” Kuhns added.

It’s long been known that many low-cost technologies and practices are available to reduce air pollution from the oil and gas industry.  But despite the availability of these solutions, most oil and gas operators cannot be relied upon to reduce their emissions voluntarily. What’s needed are enforceable government safeguards to protect public health and the environment.  These standards must require industry to find and fix leaks, eliminate or minimize equipment venting, and capturing fugitive gas and minimizing flaring.

“As a first step, we must defend existing federal methane pollution safeguards finalized during the Obama Administration, and push for additional protections to cover currently unregulated oil and gas industry air pollution sources,” said Lesley Fleischman of CATF.  “We know this is possible because it has already occurred at the state level in Colorado, where standards have been in place since 2014 and haven’t negatively impacted oil and gas production.”

For almost a decade, the oil and gas industry has promised they’d clean up methane and related toxic air pollution on their own,” said Earthworks’ Lauren Pagel. She continued, “But as we see with infrared cameras across the country, they haven’t. Now, with a new EPA administrator and when even Exxon subsidiaries are calling for methane regulation, perhaps the Trump administration will see sense and stop its disastrous rollback of federal methane safeguards just as they are about to show results.”

Additional Resources:

View  the report.

View the FLIR videos featured in report here and FLIR still images here.

View additional reports and resources featured in the report below:

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Clean Air Task Force is a nonprofit environmental organization with offices across the U.S. and in China. CATF works to help safeguard against the worst impacts of climate change by catalyzing the rapid global development and deployment of low carbon energy and other climate-protecting technologies through research and analysis, public advocacy leadership, and partnership with the private sector. For more information, please visit www.catf.us.

Earthworks is dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development while seeking sustainable solutions. For more information please visit earthworks.org