Oil and gas flaring in the US costs over 700 lives annually

Researchers have found that pollution from oil and gas flaring in America is responsible for more than 700 premature deaths and 73,000 asthma exacerbations among children annually.

They also calculated that the cost to the country in health damage was $7.4bn.

The team, from the University of North Carolina, Institute for the Environment, Boston University School of Public Health and the Environmental Defense Fund also established that emissions are widely underreported.

The World Bank describe flaring thus: ‘Gas flaring is the burning of the natural gas associated with oil extraction. It takes place due to a range of issues, from market and economic constraints, to a lack of appropriate regulation and political will. Flaring and venting are a waste of a valuable natural resource that should either be used for productive purposes, such as generating power, or conserved.’

They calculate that the amount of gas flared each year could power the whole of sub-Saharan Africa.

The research was undertaken because the team recognised that, as emissions from onshore flaring and venting are hard to capture, the impacts of the air pollution this practice produces is not well understood.

Besides emitting carbon dioxide, oil and gas flaring also releases pollutants such as methane (CH4), black carbon, nitrogen oxides (NOx), sulfur dioxide (SO2), carbon monoxide (CO), and various volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

It was found that of the 710 premature deaths caused by air pollution related to flaring in the US each year, 360 are attributable to PM2.5 but the fact the the remainder were attributable to ozone (230) and nitrogen dioxide (120) was more surprising. 

Co-author Jonathan Buonocore, an assistant professor of environmental health at Boston University School of Public Health. said: ‘Our research shows that oil and gas flaring can have substantial health impacts, and that a large portion of these impacts come from NO2 and O3, two air pollutants which are commonly not considered in health impact assessments.’

Using satellite images to observe flaring and venting activities in combination with state and local reported data the team found that emissions that were considerably higher than those reported in the US Environmental Protection Agency’s National Emission Inventories. PM2.5 was found to be up to 15 times higher, sulfur dioxides twice as high and nitrogen oxides 22% higher.

Not for the first time, it was found that the air quality health burdens of flaring fell disproportionately on low-income, Hispanic and Native American communities. Nonetheless, the team Researchers hopeful their findings will have benefits on air quality and human health in future.

Sarav Arunachalam, deputy director of the UNC Institute for the Environment and senior author of the study said: ‘Being able to combine information from what states are reporting with satellite retrievals helped us quantify the emissions from this sector better than just relying on one source.

‘Using a comprehensive multipollutant modeling framework as shown in our study is needed to assess the overall air quality impacts of this sector, instead of just focusing on one pollutant.’



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