In the midst of global efforts to transition towards clean energy sources, the United States is experiencing a surge in oil and gas (O&G) production, raising concerns among health experts regarding its impact on air quality and human well-being. While the climate effects of O&G-produced methane have been extensively studied, research on the health effects of the resulting air pollution remains limited. A recent study conducted by the School of Public Health, the University of North Carolina Institute for the Environment (UNC-IE), PSE Healthy Energy, and Environmental Defense Fund aims to bridge this knowledge gap.
Uncovering the Adverse Impacts of O&G Air Pollution: Published in the journal Environmental Research: Health, the study provides compelling evidence of the significant adverse impacts of air pollution stemming from the O&G sector in the United States. The pollutants nitrogen oxide (NO2), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and ozone (O3) generated by O&G production were found to contribute to alarming statistics in terms of human health and associated costs.
The findings revealed that in 2016 alone, O&G pollution caused approximately 7,500 excess deaths, 410,000 asthma attacks, and 2,200 new cases of childhood asthma across the United States. When considering additional factors such as respiratory and cardiovascular-related hospitalizations, adverse pregnancy outcomes, and other health challenges, the annual health costs attributed to O&G production amounted to a staggering $77 billion. Surprisingly, these impacts extended beyond regions with substantial O&G activity, affecting densely populated cities like Chicago, New York City, Baltimore, Washington DC, and Orlando.
Recognizing the Co-Benefits for Air Quality and Health: The study emphasizes the potential immediate and significant air quality benefits to human health that may result from O&G emissions reduction policies, such as the forthcoming methane regulations by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Policymakers are urged to consider these “co-benefits” in future emissions reduction strategies, highlighting that addressing end-of-pipe pollution controls during combustion alone, such as in power plants, vehicles, buildings, and industries, is an incomplete approach to combating the problem.
Adopting a Holistic Approach to Protect Health: The lead author of the study, Jonathan Buonocore, asserts that the significant impacts observed across the entire life cycle of oil and gas production—spanning from extraction to end-use—highlight the urgency of adopting a holistic approach. Incorporating health impacts into energy policies, air quality regulations, and decarbonization strategies is crucial to effectively safeguarding public health. Buonocore stresses that merely focusing on the combustion phase of oil and gas overlooks the comprehensive scope of health implications.
Implications for Regional and Nationwide Coordination: The study underscores the need for regional and nationwide coordination to address air pollution and its cross-border health impacts effectively. States with the highest emissions are not always the ones with the highest health risks, emphasizing the importance of collaborative efforts. The authors emphasize the significance of state regulations targeting precursor NO2 emissions from the O&G sector, which can help mitigate childhood asthma cases in proximity to emission sources and provide secondary health benefits in downwind areas affected by ozone and PM2.5.
Future Directions and the Way Forward: The study’s modeling framework, which included the health impacts of NO2 and utilized an advanced emission chemistry model, represents a novel approach. Moving forward, further research is needed to explore the health impacts throughout the entire life cycle of O&G production and evaluate the benefits of additional pollution control strategies. Quantifying the health effects of unexamined emissions, such as benzene and formaldehyde, will further reinforce the public health benefits of controlling