Issues

September 11, 2012 - Center for Western Priorities

Energy Development and Declining Air Quality

Oil and gas development releases pollutants into the air, impacting nearby communities, and significantly increasing respiratory disease. Responsible drilling requires companies to implement strategies that significantly reduce or eliminate harmful pollutants.

 

Rural Air Quality to Rival Los Angeles

Ozone causing chemicals—volatile organic carbons, methane and nitrous oxide—are released from a variety of sources during oil and gas development. These include leaky gas pipes and oil storage tanks, on-road diesel engines used to support drilling, and wastewater ponds associated with oil and gas exploration and development.[i]

  • Oil and gas development is linked to very high levels of ground level ozone, a harmful pollutant common in big cities like Los Angeles and Pittsburg.
  • Ground level ozone in rural Vernal, Utah has been measured at over 135 parts per billion, well above the Environmental Protection Agency’s permissible levels of 75 parts per billion.[ii] Vernal’s poor air quality rivals most large cities, like Los Angeles, which in 2010 never experienced smog above 114 parts per billion.[iii]
  • Vernal’s poor air quality has been linked to oil and gas development in the Uintah Basin.[iv] The region has experienced aggressive energy development in recent years, with 5,000 wells drilled from 2000 to 2008 and the expectation for thousands of new natural gas wells in the next decade.[v]
  • Despite living in rural Northeastern Utah, residents in Vernal are encouraged to limit outdoor activities and exertion when ozone spikes during the winter months.
  • Children, older adults and people who are active outdoors are very susceptible to the health impacts from high levels of ground level ozone. Breathing ozone can cause chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and reduced lung function. Ground level ozone worsens the effects of bronchitis, emphysema and asthma. Long-term exposure to ozone can permanently scar lung tissue.[vi]
  • Other communities in close proximity to oil and gas booms are experiencing similar declines in air quality. The air near oil and gas rigs in Wyoming, for example, has been deemed LA-like.[vii] Similarly, ozone readings near oil and gas development in Farmington, NM are known to exceed federal health standards, while researchers along Colorado’s Front Range have linked recent high ozone levels to energy development.[viii]

Other Air Quality Problems

In addition to dangerous levels of ozone, scientists are beginning to trace other harmful air pollution to oil and gas development.

  • Studies in Colorado have shown that a single gas well is capable of releasing upwards of 50 toxic pollutants into the air, including cancer-causing petroleum hydrocarbons, like benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene.[ix]
  • The Colorado Department of Public Health found that levels of carcinogenic hydrocarbons near drill sites were as high as five times federal standards.[x] People living within a half mile of wells are exposed to the greatest risk of health effects, which include include headaches, dizziness, impaired breathing, temporary paralysis and increased incidence of cancer.[xi]