Efforts to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of oil and gas drilling often focus on single measures, such as increasing setbacks, the minimum allowable distance between wells and homes, schools, and other sensitive locations. However, in a July 6 commentary in Environmental Research Letters, a group of public health experts from several universities and organizations urged adopting a multi-layered approach to developing policies to mitigate the impacts of oil and gas production operations. They set out a decision-making framework that they believe would facilitate the implementation of more measures to protect public health.
“Oil and gas development can lead to multiple hazards and therefore requires multiple solutions to protect communities and the environment,” said Dr. Nicole Desiel, lead author of the paper and associate professor of epidemiology (environmental health sciences). environment and chemical and environmental engineering at Yale University. “Our paper provides a framework for policymakers, industry and community leaders to assess which approach or combination of approaches would be most effective for a given scenario.”
The growth of the oil and gas development (OGD) industry has placed millions of United States residents in the path of numerous hazards associated with OGD operations. In 2020, nearly one million oil and gas wells were in operation, and a 2017 analysis estimated that 17.6 million US residents live in 1600 meters (1 mile) of an active oil or gas well. Evidence continues to accumulate that OGD contributes to air pollution, water pollution, noise, psychosocial stress and health risks.
Studies have reported associations between residential proximity to oil and gas operations and increased adverse pregnancy outcomes, cancer incidence, hospitalizations, and asthma. Some drilling operations have been located near communities with lower resources, exacerbating their cumulative burden of environmental and social injustice.
In their paper, the authors describe the strengths and limitations of available control strategies. They describe how some measures, such as engineering controls, although generally considered quite effective at capturing pollutants at source, may not be sufficient due to the complex array of potential emissions – such as noise, air pollution, greenhouse gases and increased local traffic on trucks. In contrast, reducing new drilling and properly decommissioning active and inactive oil and gas wells would be most effective because it eliminates the source of almost all environmental factors.
“It’s important to note that increasing setbacks, the distance between a home and an oil and gas drilling site, do nothing to mitigate the impact on climate change or regional ozone,” said Lisa McKenzie, co-author of the paper and associate professor at the School of Colorado Public Health, University of Colorado Anschutz Campus.
Desiel said, “While phasing out drilling may sound like a significant departure from the status quo, it’s important to note that many states and municipalities are already taking steps to do so, such as Los Angeles, which approved a ban on all new oil and gas wells .”
The authors recommend that scholars and practitioners adopt a more integrated approach.
Rachel Morello-Frosh, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management and senior author of the commentary, said she hopes the paper — and its recommendations — will be useful to risk managers. decision makers and community members and promote interventions that more holistically protect the community’s environmental health.
Other co-authors include Joan A. Casey (Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health), Thomas E. McCone (School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley), Jill E. Johnston (Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California), David JX Gonzalez (School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley) and Seth Shonkoff (PSE Healthy Energy).