Methane Leaks from Oil & Gas Exploration: A Health Nightmare

A rollback of methane rules worsens climate change, air pollution & health.
An oil refinery gas flare (Credit: W.Carter/Wikimedia).

New research shows that, within the next seven years, nearly 2,000 Americans could die annually from oil and gas sector-triggered air pollution if dangerous methane emissions are not controlled. Such a future is, unfortunately, a grim outcome that a new Trump EPA proposal directly enables by rolling back protections that keep methane gas (the main ingredient of natural gas) from leaking out of new oil and gas facilities. Methane is a powerful climate warmer: Pound for pound in the near-term, it traps more than 80 times as much heat on our planet as carbon dioxide. The oil and gas sector is the largest domestic industrial source of methane pollution, so it is a prime target in our fight to limit the dangerous effects of climate change, which are becoming more clear every day.

Dangerous Air Pollution from Oil & Gas Exploration

Beyond methane, exploration for oil and gas also releases other types of harmful pollution into the air, such as sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ammonia, and other toxic compounds. Each of these pollutants has been independently linked to health problems in humans, and some also function as building blocks that form even more deadly substances in the air we breathe, like small particles and ozone smog. Now, this new research by EPA scientists is shedding light on the substantial harms to health caused by air pollution from the oil and gas sector.

New Research Warns of Major Health Risks

EPA’s own researchers used records from the oil and gas sector to estimate how exploration and extraction projects like natural gas fracking and flaring at oil refineries contribute to small particles and ozone smog, and what future exposures to that pollution could mean for people who live in areas where such projects are happening. This work used the same robust, transparent methods that have been used for decades through the Clean Air Act to set our national air quality standards, safeguards that have added an more than a year to the average American’s life expectancy since 1970.  To figure out the specific health risks posed by air pollution, scientists considered expected future pollution levels along with the established exposure and outcome (e.g., cause and effect) relationships that doctors and other medical experts have spent their careers quantifying

The results of this analysis are striking, with nearly 2,000 extra deaths each year caused by air pollution exposures from the oil and gas sector in 2025 and each year thereafter. Air pollution from the oil and gas sector is expected to most directly harm the people living near exploration activities, including residents of Alabama, Louisiana, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, and West Virginia. Even though many of these states benefit from generally good air quality, people living in these areas still experience harm from the side effects of oil and gas exploration because, as the EPA researchers note, there is no safe level of air pollution.

A Serious Health and Economic Toll

This work also identifies significant risk for human illness caused by oil and gas sector emissions by 2025, including more than 3,600 costly trips to the emergency room for heart and breathing problems, about 100,000 lost days of work, and over a million asthma exacerbations and other acute respiratory troubles. These health effects are immense in terms of unnecessary human suffering, and the total economic impact of health damages is estimated at $13-29 billion each year—and that’s without considering the ways in which methane leaks accelerate the costly health risks of climate change.

Air pollution can trigger asthma attacks (Credit: US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

This new evidence is important because it represents the first instance in which experts have been able to quantify the health and economic burden directly associated with air pollution from oil and natural gas production in the United States. We know more than we’ve ever known before about the harmful effects of fossil fuel-driven air pollution, climate change, and health risks. Will we act to stem the underlying cause of these problems?

Protecting and Strengthening Safeguards

There is hope on this front. According to a 2014 report by NRDC and others, EPA can cut methane pollution in half, all while dramatically reducing other harmful air pollutants and linked health problems, by issuing federal standards for new and existing oil and gas infrastructure nationwide. Americans overwhelmingly support federal efforts like these to curb methane pollution, according to recent polling by the American Lung Association.

But first, we must resist efforts to roll back the existing safeguards. EPA is accepting public comments on its misguided attack on the New Source Performance Standards through Monday, December 17. Now is the time to stand up for commonsense safeguards that deliver major benefits for air quality, climate, and health.