Experts Urge Multilayered Strategies To Protect Public Health From Oil and Gas Drilling Effects

A group of public health experts from several universities and organizations urges adoption of a multilayered approach when developing policies to mitigate the effects of gas and oil production operations.

Homes and a natural gas drilling rig in Frederick, Colorado.
Source: Getty Images

Efforts to mitigate the potentially harmful effects of oil and gas drilling are often focused on single measures, such as increasing setbacks, the minimum allowable distance between drilling and homes, schools, and other sensitive locations. However, in a 6 July commentary in Environmental Research Letters, a group of public health experts from several universities and organizations urges adoption of a multilayered approach when developing policies to mitigate the effect of gas and oil production operations. They lay out a framework for decision-making, which they say would facilitate the application of more public health protective measures.

“Oil and gas development can emit multiple hazards and, therefore, requires multiple solutions to protect communities and the environment,” said Nicole Deziel, the paper’s lead author and an 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 weigh which approach or combination of approaches would be most effective for a given scenario.”

The growth in the oil and gas development industry has placed millions of US residents in the path of multiple hazards associated with those operations. In 2020, nearly 1 million oil and gas wells were in operation, and a 2017 analysis estimated that 17.6 million US residents lived within 1 mile of an active oil or gas well. Evidence continues to mount that oil and gas development contributes to air pollution, water contamination, 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-related operations have been located near lower-resourced communities, worsening their cumulative burden of environmental and social injustices.

In their paper, the authors describe the strengths and limitations of available control strategies. They describe how certain measures, such as engineering controls, although typically considered quite effective at capturing pollutants at the source, may not be sufficient because of the complex array of potential emissions such as noise, air pollution, and greenhouse gases and increased local truck traffic. In contrast, reducing new drilling and properly discontinuing active and inactive oil and gas wells would be most effective because it eliminates the source of nearly all environmental stressors.

“It is important to note that increasing setbacks, the distance between a home and oil and gas drilling site, doesn’t do anything to mitigate impacts on climate change or regional ozone,” said Lisa McKenzie, a coauthor of the paper and associate professor at the Colorado School of Public Health, University of Colorado Anschutz Campus.

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