Report shows how many asthma attacks are caused by the oil and gas industry

Asthma affects millions of U.S. children. A new analysis finds that oil and gas production is causing widespread respiratory effects. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CARLOS OSORIO
Asthma affects millions of U.S. children. A new analysis finds that oil and gas production is causing widespread respiratory effects. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/CARLOS OSORIO

New analysis from the Clean Air Task Force shows that by 2025 America’s children will experience 750,000 asthma attacks each summer that will be directly attributable to the oil and gas industry.

The report, Gasping for Breath, is the first to quantify the effects of smog caused by oil and gas production and distribution. The authors used industry data submitted to the EPA’s National Emissions Inventory, particularly looking at methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can interact to create smog. This chemical reaction is facilitated by ultraviolet rays and heat — which is why smog is a bigger problem in the summer than the winter.

VOCs, which include gasoline, benzene, and formaldehyde, are particularly concerning. Not only are they often heavier than air, allowing them to pool in low-lying areas, where people live and breath, and many VOCs are known carcinogens.

VOC Emissions from Oil and Gas Sources by County CREDIT: GASPING FOR BREATH/CLEAN AIR TASK FORCE
VOC Emissions from Oil and Gas Sources by County CREDIT: GASPING FOR BREATH/CLEAN AIR TASK FORCE
Asthma Attack Risk by County CREDIT: GASPING FOR BREATH/CLEAN AIR TASK FORCE
Asthma Attack Risk by County CREDIT: GASPING FOR BREATH/CLEAN AIR TASK FORCE

While the report looks specifically at the year 2025, when most currently proposed regulation is expected to be fully in effect, the level of impact is roughly the same today, according to Lesley Fleischman, the report’s lead author. That’s because most of the facilities expected to be in production in nine years are already being used.

“There is reason to think that the impact today is on the same scale,” Fleischman said. “The vast majority of emissions are from existing sources.”

Texas, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania are the most-impacted states, according to the report. And, frankly, not much is being done about it.

“Except in the state of Colorado, there are virtually no regulations [for] methane and volatile organic compound emissions that cover existing facilities,” Fleischman said.

According to data from Weld County, in northeast Colorado, asthma rates there increased 16 percent between 2007 and 2013. During that time, natural gas production in the county more than doubled, and oil production increased sixfold.

In response to the uptick in drilling, residents have been asking for an epidemiological study on asthma and other health effects related to oil and gas drilling, said Therese Gilbert, a middle school teacher in Greeley, which is in the center of the county.

“We have terrible ground-level ozone now,” Gilbert said, and she and others blame it for increases in poor health outcomes, particularly among children and the elderly. The local newspaper recently reported that Weld’s infant mortality rate is 7.2 per 1,000 births— more than twice that of Boulder. While officials attributed the difference to higher poverty rates, “I’m not buying that,” Gilbert said. “Especially when you see asthma rates going up among children.”

Meanwhile, oil and gas production continues to grow.

This past June, for instance, the county’s planning commission unanimously approved a new drilling pad with 24 wellheads just 1,300 feet from a Greeley elementary school, despite the fact that research has repeatedly shown that living within a half mile (2,640 feet) from oil and gas production is correlated with several health impacts, including respiratory illness.

“It’s just science,” Gilbert said. “Science is slow. Science is steady. Science is careful. Science doesn’t jump to conclusions — but it piles up. We have now hundreds of studies saying there are deleterious health effects if you are living within a half mile” of oil and gas production.

“I guess science doesn’t matter to people,” she said. “I’m not really an activist; I’m a teacher that believes in science. I believe in peer-reviewed science.”

Just this week, the state ruled that a Colorado petition that would have required a 2,500-foot setback from homes, schools, and other buildings for oil and gas development narrowly missed having enough valid signatures to put the ballot measure to voters in November.

Regulations haven’t caught up to science

In fact, Colorado has the strictest regulations for oil and gas production in the country.

“They may be the strictest regulations, but just because they are strict doesn’t mean they are safe.”

Much of the problem comes from simple leaks. The wells leak, the compressors leak, the pipes leak. Under Colorado’s new laws, oil and gas operators are required to improve their monitoring and to install devices that capture 95 percent of emissions, including methane and VOCs.

Natural gas is 80 percent methane, so regulating its extraction can help pave the way to reducing VOCs and ozone.

“They may be the strictest regulations, but just because they are strict doesn’t mean they are safe,” Gilbert said.

Much of the problem comes from simple leaks. The wells leak, the compressors leak, the pipes leak. Under Colorado’s new laws, oil and gas operators are required to improve their monitoring and to install devices that capture 95 percent of emissions, including methane and VOCs.

On the federal side, the EPA issued methane emissions regulations earlier this year — but they apply only to new oil and gas facilities. Under the new regulations, new oil and gas production facilities will be subject to semi-annual or quarterly reporting. The rule is expected to reduce emissions by 11 million tons per year of CO2 equivalent by 2025, EPA officials said.Overall, the Obama administration has a goal of reducing methane emissions from the oil and gas sector by 40 to 45 percent from 2012 levels by 2025.

Gasping for Breath accounted for these regulations in its analysis.

The problem is everywhere.

But according to the report, people who live in places without oil and gas production should still be concerned. Pollution from these facilities affects people in all 50 states, regardless of whether there is drilling there.

“The most important point of this report is that oil and gas pollution affects large numbers of people even if they don’t live near oil and gas production,” said Alan Septoff, a spokesperson for Earthworks, part of the Clean Air Task Force.

Wind carries ground-level ozone across the country, bringing its damaging effects to population centers, particularly along the East Coast, the report found.

“It’s persistent in the atmosphere, that’s why New York and D.C. have large affected populations,” Septoff said. A “threat map” released in conjunction with the report allows users to see where every registered oil and gas well is located in the country. For most of the country, there is also data on how much oil and gas-related ozone is occurring.

A “Threat Map” shows all of the oil and gas wells (yellow) in the continental United States and the related ozone (brown). CREDIT: CLEAN AIR TASK FORCE
A “Threat Map” shows all of the oil and gas wells (yellow) in the continental United States and the related ozone (brown). CREDIT: CLEAN AIR TASK FORCE

It’s worth noting that the report does not include the effects of burning oil and gas, such as car exhaust or heating oil emissions, which can also produce smog — especially in cities. Nor does the report look at the climate change effects of methane, which stores heat 86 times more effectively than carbon dioxide, over a 20-year period. The report does note that as temperatures continue to climb, ozone levels and consequent health impacts are likely to increase.

It’s a bad problem, with an easy fix.

The EPA is currently gathering information from industry and other stakeholders on the possibility of releasing rules that would apply to existing oil and gas infrastructure. California, too, is set to release strict methane regulations.

And while the oil and gas industry has largely fought the EPA’s methane and ozone regulations, companies have also said that it won’t be a huge burden to implement leak prevention and detection measures.

After coming to terms with Colorado’s regulations, businesses said it was possible to comply — while still continuing to develop resources.

“This is the right thing to do for our business,” Curtis Rueter, a Denver-based development manager at Noble Energy, told Bloomberg. “We want to find the leaks and fix them because that will reduce our emissions and the rules provide guidance and technology for us to do that.”

But another executive for his company had previously testified that the regulations would cost $3 million a year and force the company to hire 16 additional people, according to the same report.

“Many low-cost technologies and practices are available to reduce these emissions,” the Clean Air Task Force report said.

But as with so many environmental regulations, it comes down to people, communities, and environmental groups demanding better action from industry.

“It’s to the Obama administration’s credit that they are addressing existing sources against tremendous opposition from the oil and gas lobby,” Septoff said. The industry has already proven it will not use these technologies and practices voluntarily. It remains to be seen if the EPA and other states will force it.

“They have to do this — address existing oil and gas facilities — to meet our Paris commitments,” Septoff said. “It is a matter of overcoming the oil and gas lobby’s influence.”

The American Petroleum Institute did not respond to reporter inquiries Thursday.