Test the air, get answers for frontline communities

Every day, an average adult takes about 20,000 breaths to get the oxygen needed for survival. Unfortunately, for the growing number of people living near oil and gas development, that many breaths also provides ample opportunities to take in health-harming pollution. 

The shale boom of the last several years has intensified drilling in many places and introduced it in others, adding onto previous drilling and bringing the number of active oil and gas wells nationwide to 1.1 million in 2014. 

No wonder oil and gas field residents keep asking basic questions: “What’s in my air?” and “Why is it making me sick?” Yet both the regulators who oversee the oil and gas industry and the policymakers who determine its course respond only with partial, ambiguous answers. They don’t regularly monitor the air directly around well sites and facilities, accurately track the emissions generated, or use the right health standards to judge risks to residents.

Earthworks believes that communities need better answers, and that much more must be done to improve understanding of oil and gas air pollution. That's why I wrote a new paper from Earthworks on community-based air monitoring projects, which are designed to put information in the hands of impacted residents and force regulators and decisionmakers to take action. The paper describes air monitoring methods currently available for these projects, as well as a range of factors that should be considered by anyone doing community-based air monitoring.

The dual goals behind such projects—community support and regulatory response—were the impetus for Earthworks’ air testing and health survey research  in several states. They are also what guides our ongoing documentation of air emissions at wells and facilities using an infrared camera.

Community-based air monitoring is currently an imperfect, evolving science, but one that is essential. Recent studies have found that health symptoms are more frequent and risk levels higher among people living closer to wells and facilities than among those further away. Other studies have identified similar patterns in potential exposures and resulting symptoms, in particular respiratory problems, eye and throat irritation, headaches, nausea, and stress. 

Despite a recent dip in operations following rampant production and falling prices, oil and gas companies and states dependent on the industry want more wells, processing plants, pipelines, and other operations. Every one of these represents a potential source of methane emissions that exacerbate climate change and a cocktail of pollutants that harm health.  

In the face of this harsh reality, it would be logical for regulatory agencies to expand technically advanced air monitoring systems and use data to establish stronger pollution controls. But such progress on the governmental level will at best be very slow, given inadequate funding for regulatory agencies and tepid political support for research on oil and gas impacts. Earthworks, partner organizations, residents, and researchers will continue to work hard to fill the gap—making sure that frontline communities have the information they truly deserve.