Just because a fuel source may emit less CO2 when it’s used doesn’t mean that there aren’t adverse impacts along its entire life cycle. Air pollution from the production of fossil fuels is responsible for $77 billion in health damages across the U.S. and causes tens of thousands of adverse health impacts each year, a new study published Monday in Environmental Research: Health has found.
Before the intense fracking boom of the 2010s, natural gas enjoyed a reputation as a “bridge fuel”: because it produces much less CO2 than oil or coal when burned, it was considered a way for the world to wean itself off fossil fuels. Research has shown that using natural gas as fuel instead of coal could result in significant improvements in health outcomes— “mostly because [natural gas] is not coal,” which is an incredibly dirty form of energy, said Jonathan Buonocore, an assistant professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and the study’s lead author.
But just because natural gas produces relatively few emissions at its end use point doesn’t mean that there aren’t other impacts involved over its entire life cycle. Producing natural gas and oil involves a lot of machinery, like pumpjacks and compressor stations, that operate on dirty fuels. Oil and gas production also creates methane emissions in the form of leaks and intentional venting; methane can help contribute to the formation of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and ozone (O3), which can increase the risk of cardiac and respiratory issues, asthma, birth defects, premature death, and other health problems.
Previous work on the health impacts of fossil fuels has largely focused either on intensely local studies—communities living very close to areas where fracking or drilling is taking place—or on what happens when the gas or oil is burned or used in an engine or power plant. This study set out to look at the large-scale geographic impacts of production. To conduct this study, Buonocore and his fellow researchers created a model that compared emissions from oil and gas production of nitrogen oxide (NO2), fine particulate matter (PM2.5), and ozone (O3), as well as how these emissions affected air pollution throughout the U.S., linked to data on the various health impacts of that pollution.
The results are pretty shocking. Emissions from just production were responsible for 7,500 premature deaths, 410,000 asthma attacks, and 2,200 additional cases of child asthma across the country. Other adverse impacts, including heart attacks and pregnancy complications, helped to create the $77 billion price tag.
One element of the research that was particularly surprising, Buonocore said, was how far-reaching the health impacts of production stretched. The areas with the most intense health impacts were regions with, unsurprisingly, a lot of oil and gas production like Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania. But states and regions without fossil fuel production, like New York and Illinois, also bore significant health burdens thanks to air pollution traveling over state borders. Impacts were felt in cities like Chicago, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia—all of which are comparatively far from oil and gas production centers.
The study uses data from 2016, which was the latest full dataset that the researchers were able to obtain when they started the project, Buonocore explained. But there’s reason to believe that the numbers may be significantly higher in reality. For one, data from the EPA on oil and gas production used in the study, he said, undercounts some polluting infrastructure when compared to other data sources. The U.S. is also in the middle of an oil and gas production splurge that could definitely make these health impacts steeper than when the data was collected in 2016. The U.S. produced an average of 119 billion cubic feet per day (bcf/d) of natural gas in 2022, compared to 77.5 bcf/d in 2016. Crude oil production, meanwhile, set a record in 2022 and is expected to increase in 2023 and 2024.
In the years since the fracking boom, increasing attention has been paid to the climate impacts of burning natural gas for fuel, especially the rapid rise in methane emissions worldwide. At the same time, technologies like hydrogen and carbon capture, which purportedly will make “clean” fuels from natural gas and oil, are on the rise. Buonocore said that this study shows how all aspects of the life cycle of fuels need to be considered—not just the CO2 emitted from the end result.
“Just like methane, we should probably look at the full life cycle,” he said. “And lo and behold, there’s a lot missing. These are another set of impacts that should be considered when thinking about energy choices.”