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Perspective

It’s time to move beyond “carbon tunnel vision”

As we decarbonize our energy system, we must address not only carbon emissions, but also the harmful public health and environmental impacts of oil and gas extraction.

Ploy Achakulwisut, Patricio Calles Almeida, Elisa Arond / Published on 28 March 2022
Perspective contact

Lynsi Burton / lynsi.burton@sei.org

As the world races against time to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and keep alive the goal of limiting warming to 1.5°C, oil and gas companies have begun to market their products as “clean” or “carbon neutral”. Companies such as Shell, TotalEnergies and Lundin Energy have begun branding some of their products as “carbon neutral” by bundling them with carbon offsets.

Such tactics are greenwashing at best and dangerous at worst. Not only has investigation after investigation exposed the carbon offset industry as highly unreliable, these company narratives create a distraction from the fact that we need to transition away from fossil fuels now to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Global coal, oil, and gas production and use must start declining immediately and steeply to limit long-term warming to 1.5°C even if we manage to dramatically cut methane emissions and eventually develop carbon dioxide removal technologies at scale.

What’s more, this “burn now, pay later” approach completely ignores the reality that every year, millions of people, including children, die prematurely and fall ill from air pollution stemming from fossil fuel burning. Local communities and ecosystems continue to bear the brunt of pollution and other harmful impacts from oil and gas extraction.

This “carbon tunnel vision”, in which we solely strive for “net” zero emissions while ignoring other sustainable development goals, is perfectly captured in an illustration by Maastricht Sustainability Institute’s Jan Konietzko.

Illustration of the “carbon tunnel vision” concept. Reproduced with permission from Jan Konietzko.

In this perspective, we summarize some of the major public health and environmental harms of oil and gas extraction activities by drawing on illustrative examples from North America and Latin America.

Local and regional public health impacts

Activities along the oil and gas supply chain – from exploration, extraction, processing and refining to transport – generate toxic air, water, and waste pollution and non-chemical stressors that affect the health of the industry’s own workers and nearby communities.

Air pollution

Besides greenhouse gases, two other major types of health-harming air pollutants are emitted along the oil and gas supply chain that affect local and regional air quality. Criteria air pollutants and chemicals that lead to their formation in the atmosphere lead to a slew of health effects including heart and lung disease, fertility problems, dementia, reduced intelligence and premature death. Such pollutants include particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. Hazardous air pollutants (such as benzene and toluene) are known or suspected to cause cancer and other serious health effects such as reproductive effects and birth defects. Major sources of these two types of airborne pollutants include the heavy-duty diesel engines involved in well drilling and completion, venting and flaring, as well as the leaks that happen throughout the process, from well pad to liquid storage tanks and oil refining.

In the US, approximately 18 million people, or 5% of the population, now live within about a mile (1.6 km) of at least one active oil or gas well thanks to unconventional drilling methods that brought wells closer to more people. A growing number of epidemiological studies are linking exposure to air pollutants emitted from oil and gas production to higher rates of hospitalization, asthma exacerbation and incidence and adverse birth outcomes. Other potential effects, such as cancer and neurodegenerative diseases, cannot yet be comprehensively studied because insufficient time has passed since the rapid expansion of unconventional oil and gas development. However, air quality monitoring studies have found dangerously high levels of benzene and other hazardous air pollutants for people living within 500 feet (150 metres) of an oil or gas facility. In fact, one recent study analysed data from 2001–2015 and found that elderly people living near unconventional oil and gas wells are more likely to die prematurely. It is also worth noting that the oil industry knew as early as 1980 that its own workers and their children may be experiencing cancer and birth defects.

Wastewater and solid waste pollution

Solid and liquid wastes generated by oil and gas operations can contain a wide variety of harmful and toxic contaminants, including arsenic, lead and barium, as well as naturally occurring radioactive materials that originate deep in the underlying rock and become concentrated by the drilling process. Although the US Environmental Protection Agency has known about these radioactive waste streams for at least 30 years, there remains no specific federal regulations to ensure of their safe management and disposal, leading to vast amounts of unquantified oil and gas waste that a Rolling Stone investigation found poses “under-studied risks to the environment, the public, and especially the industry’s own employees.”

In particular, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques – which have led to a dramatic expansion of unconventional oil and gas drilling in the US over the past 15 years – consume and contaminate vast quantities of water with thousands of chemicals, some of which are known to be carcinogenic or have adverse reproductive and developmental effects. Th­ere have been documented cases of ground and surface water contamination near oil and gas wells in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

These same risks have been identified in oil and gas operations in the Amazon and Andean regions in South America. Proximity to producing oil fields has been linked to increased cancer incidence in Ecuador. High concentrations of heavy metals and hydrocarbons have been detected in surface water used for fishing and drinking across several towns in Peru and Bolivia.

The continued expansion of unconventional extraction technologies, such as fracking, could also put a strain on water management infrastructure. For example, previous work by SEI on Argentina’s Vaca Muerta highlights that shale operations increase pressure on and pose a quality risk to regional water supply.

Human rights abuses

Impacts on Indigenous communities

The impacts of oil and gas development on Indigenous communities have been widely documented around the world, from Latin America (including in Bolivia and Peru) to the Arctic (including Alaska). These include fragmentation and loss of territory, diminished access to land and water resources, impaired water quality and food security, diminished social cohesion, impacts on culture, identity, Indigenous knowledge and practices, and repression and threats against those who oppose extractive activities.

Between 2011 and 2019, 17% of 2,743 cases of socio-environmental conflicts worldwide were associated with oil and gas supply projects, according to research based on the Global Atlas of Environmental Justice (EJAtlas). Environmental defenders, especially from Indigenous and other marginalized groups, face high rates of criminalization, physical violence and assassinations across all documented conflicts. Colombia has the worst record of murders of environmental defenders, with 65 people killed in 2020, a third of whom were Indigenous or Afro-descendant.

Environmental justice implications

Beyond the impacts on Indigenous communities, environmental justice conflicts caused by oil and gas extraction are widespread throughout the Americas, with hotspots located in the US Northeastern Coast and in the Amazon and Andean regions, as documented by the EJAtlas (see figure). Conflicts occur for a variety of reasons, including safety, health and biodiversity concerns.

The Global Atlas of Environmental Justice documents socio-environmental conflicts associated with extractive activities, including those connected to oil and gas exploration and extraction, pipelines and wells, and oil spills. Graphic: EJAtlas.

For example, emerging research in the US suggests that the harmful impacts of unconventional oil and gas development are disproportionately borne by pregnant women, children, communities of color, Indigenous people and impoverished communities. A recent study found that Hispanic residents living in South Texas were exposed to significantly more nightly flare events than white residents, while another study found “robust evidence” that minorities, especially African Americans, disproportionately live near fracking wells in Colorado, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation

Some of the world´s major reserves of oil and gas lie within key areas for conservation, such as the Amazon and the Arctic, and their extraction poses a threat to natural ecosystems and biodiversity. Energy development can lead to wildlife mortality, habitat loss and fragmentation, noise and light pollution, and invasive species. For example, oil and gas developments in western Canada have severely affected caribou populations in the region.

The development of oil and gas infrastructure also leads to deforestation and forest degradation. These threats are likely to increase in key regions as governments weaken regulations that protect forests and associated communities. Currently, 327 oil or gas blocks are available for bidding or are under exploration in the Amazon Basin (covering some 108 million hectares).

Even if future extraction operations were to align with net-zero emissions pathways through offset mechanisms or carbon capture and storage technologies, the risk of oil spills will persist either because of machinery failure (like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010) or a geological event thousands of kilometres away (like the recent volcanic eruption leading to an oil spill at the Pampilla refinery off the coast of Peru). Ecological disasters costing billions of dollars and requiring decades-long recoveries will continue to be a possibility, even when regulations are followed, so long as oil and gas operations continue.

Avoiding “carbon tunnel vision” in the race towards net-zero

Continued oil and gas extraction poses many dangers that go beyond climate-change-causing emissions and will continue to exist in a net-zero future that many would consider a success. As with climate change impacts, however, some groups and regions are more exposed than others. From long-term health problems to life and biodiversity loss, the harms of extraction fall disproportionately on the marginalized groups who are often most exposed to operation sites and infrastructure.

None of this is new. The harmful effects of oil and gas extraction are well-known and backed by years of research, but little has been done to protect the environment and communities. Though more continuous and comprehensive data collection would help to provide more quantitative evidence and improve accountability, the real reason for inaction is clear: those most affected have the smallest voices in our society. Long-standing inequities in our economic and political systems have allowed those who benefit from the fossil fuel economy to continue protecting their interests, while dismissing the damages borne by the most vulnerable as “externalities”.

The urgent need for a transition away from fossil fuels has many different facets, each interacting with the others and requiring equal attention. Oil and gas projects should be evaluated not only for the greenhouse gas emissions they could lock in globally, but also for the risks they pose to local communities and ecosystems, such as air and water pollution, deforestation, and human rights violations. Strong regulatory frameworks and enforcement, a major challenge in many countries, must also be supported in line with these efforts.

It’s time to move beyond “carbon tunnel vision” by planning a just transition that considers not just the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and compensation of workers, but also the injustices that affect human and ecological health and well-being.

Written by

Ploy Achakulwisut

Research Fellow

SEI US

Elisa Arond

Research Fellow

SEI Latin America

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