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To protect health, EPA must regulate methane emissions

As public health and medical professionals, we are extremely concerned about how the environments where we live, work and play impact our health and well-being. So many environmental factors affect our health: the air we breathe, the water we drink, exposure to chemical pollution, access to healthy food, safe outdoor spaces, safe schools and daycares, health care facilities — the list goes on.

Across the U.S, one significant environmental factor affecting people’s health is how close they live to oil and gas wells. Oil and gas extraction and production leaks methane and other air pollutants, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Some VOCs can cause cancer, affect the nervous system, or cause birth defects. Burning methane also emits nitrogen oxides, which can also cause health harm. Additionally, when VOCs mix with nitrogen oxides, they contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone pollution. 

Exposure to ground-level ozone can cause damage to the lungs and increases the chances of premature death. It causes asthma attacks, aggravates other chronic lung diseases and pre-existing heart problems, as well as contributing to premature birth. Children are particularly vulnerable to both ozone and VOC pollution.

Exposure to dangerous levels of ground-level ozone isn’t limited to one particular part of the country. It affects people everywhere, from Southern California to Texas to North Dakota to Pennsylvania. A 2022 report on air pollution from the American Lung Association found that 122 million Americans — including almost 28 million children and over 18 million seniors — live in a county that has received a failing grade for ozone pollution.

In addition to emitting VOCs and contributing to ground-level ozone pollution, oil and gas production also leaks methane directly into the air. Methane is a major climate pollutant; it is 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. Methane leaks contribute significantly to climate change, which in turn impacts the health and lives of all Americans, especially children, older adults, low-income communities, communities of color and people living with chronic diseases. From more frequent and intense wildfires and floods, to worsening air pollution and increasing risks from vector-borne diseases like Lyme Disease, climate change harms our health in many ways.

Given the health risks that result from oil and gas extraction and production, we were extremely encouraged to see that the Inflation Reduction Act, which President Biden signed into law on Aug. 16, includes a program aimed at incentivizing companies to take additional steps to reduce emissions across their operations. The Methane Emissions Reduction Program, which is designed to be complementary to any federal regulations, will charge specific types of facilities for the amount of methane they release into the atmosphere, and it is the first direct federal charge, fee or tax on greenhouse gas emissions. The program will help drive the cleanup of methane emissions from the atmosphere, slowing the acceleration of climate change.

The Methane Emissions Reduction Program is an exciting and necessary step in the fight to clean up air pollution — but in order to further reduce health consequences from air pollution, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) must also enact stronger regulations on methane.

For years, leading national health organizations, medical professionals and public health experts like us have been calling for strong federal pollution limits on oil and gas operations to protect Americans’ health, particularly the health of fenceline communities — the people who live directly next to these facilities and are most at risk of experiencing health issues either caused or exacerbated by air pollution. 

In November 2021, EPA proposed a rule to cut methane and other harmful pollution from new and existing oil and gas operations. While the proposal is a good start, it must go further. To better protect fenceline communities and prevent the worst impacts of climate change, EPA must require the oil and gas industry to take the strongest steps possible to prevent methane emissions. Those steps include:

  1. Eliminating the practice of routine flaring (burning oil or gas as a waste product), which emits harmful air pollution.
  2. Requiring regular monitoring at smaller, high polluting wells. These smaller wells generate just a trickle of usable gas but leak an unusually large amount of methane given their size. Under EPA’s current proposal, some of these high polluting wells wouldn’t be regularly monitored for leaks. 
  3. Eliminating loopholes that allow any wells to skip regular leak inspections.

Oftentimes, oil and gas facilities — which are disproportionately sited in marginalized neighborhoods — are located near schools, parks, homes and childcare facilities, making it near-impossible to prevent children from breathing in dangerous levels of air pollution. In many places near oil and gas operations, children are exposed to higher levels of air pollution and therefore are more likely to experience coughing and wheezing, asthma attacks, and respiratory and cardiovascular harm. By reducing emissions from oil and gas operations, including from methane pollution, we will help protect the health of children and take significant steps to clean up the air that they breathe.

EPA’s decision to implement (or not implement) strong emissions standards for new and existing oil and gas operations will have a tangible impact on your health, my health, as well as the health of our children and grandchildren. We urge them to prioritize vulnerable children and fenceline communities and swiftly strengthen their proposed rule — we have no time to waste.

Deborah P. Brown is the chief mission officer for the American Lung Association, and has spent her career working on advocacy issues in the areas of tobacco, asthma, school health and healthcare. She has been involved in passage of the Delaware Clean Indoor Air Act, Pennsylvania Clean Indoor Air law, anti-idling legislation, as well as numerous environmental campaigns at both the state and federal levels.

Dr. Anne Mellinger-Birdsong is a pediatrician and environmental public health specialist who currently works as a Medical Education Advisor for Mothers & Others for Clean Air. During her career, Mellinger-Birdsong has worked as a medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, the Georgia Division/Department of Public Health, and the American Lung Association of Georgia.

Tags Air pollution clean air Methane Public health

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