By Uni Blake
The health of African American communities is a genuine cause for concern in our country, but attacking the natural gas and oil industry is the wrong approach and detracts from the real work that should be done to reduce disparately high rates of disease among African Americans. Let’s be clear—the natural gas and oil industry is:
• Committed to the health and safety of the communities where it operates and to its workers.
• Leading the way on reducing U.S. greenhouse gas and other air emissions.
• Supporting millions of well-paying jobs—one of the most important factors in the well-being of Americans.
Recently, I read a NAACP paper that accused the natural gas and oil industry of emissions that disproportionately burden African American communities. As a scientist, my overall observation is that the paper fails to demonstrate a causal relationship between natural gas activity and the health disparities, reported or predicted, within the African American community.
Rather, scholarly research attributes those health disparities to other factors that have nothing to do with natural gas and oil operations—such as genetics, indoor allergens and unequal access to preventative care. The objective should be to address the underlying socio-economic factors that contribute to the disparities, and one of the best vehicles is via the good jobs the natural gas and oil industry supports.
More specifically, the paper misleads on the information associated with asthma and cancer prevalence by conflating industry-associated emissions, hazards and risks. When we review health data from the states where energy development is occurring, we see a different outcome. For example, the latest Pennsylvania Department of Health data shows asthma hospitalizations among African Americans have decreased significantly at a time of increased natural gas production in the state.
Let’s look at some facts:
• Thanks to increased use of clean and abundant natural gas, carbon dioxide emissions from power generation have fallen 25 percent since 2005, and emissions from energy use across the entire economy are at their lowest levels in nearly 25 years. The use of domestic natural gas also is playing an important part in reducing other emissions, including nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide. Both are important developments for everyone’s health.
• The industry has improved its fuel products, eliminating lead in gasoline and reducing its sulfur content by more than 90 percent from 1990 to 2016.
• Ambient benzene concentrations dropped by 71 percent from 1994-2013 nationwide, according to data from EPA’s 2008 and 2015 Reports on the Environment – largely due to reductions in refinery emissions and improvements in gasoline.
• During development of its 2015 Refinery Sector Rule, the EPA concluded that the public was protected from refinery emissions, including benzene, by existing regulations, and that protection would only increase with full implementation of the final rule.
• Methane emissions from natural gas systems are down 16 percent since 1990, according to the EPA—a time period in which natural gas production has increased more than 50 percent. While not a direct public health concern, methane is an important greenhouse gas that the industry is working to reduce even more.
• The industry is committed to making continuous improvements in the environmental performance of its operations and products, spending more than $320 billion on these improvements since 1990. Between 1990 and 2015, U.S. refiners alone spent $160.1 billion on improving their facilities.
• The natural gas and oil industry supports 10.3 million jobs across the country—jobs that pay for health care, good nutrition, livable homes and more. Tens of thousands of our current employees are African Americans, a number that is projected to grow significantly in the future.
• Natural gas and oil companies are invested in the communities where they operate. Our employees live, work and raise families in these communities.
In short, the natural gas and oil industry demonstrates its commitment, every day, to ensuring the protection of human health, safety and the environment for all Americans while providing millions of American families the benefits of affordable, reliable energy.
Our industry is a leader in reducing emissions and is committed to continuing that progress in the future through the use of data, new technologies and equipment—each reflecting our companies’ desire to strengthen the communities where they operate.
Uni Blake is a scientific adviser in regulatory and scientific affairs at the American Petroleum Institute. As a toxicologist her focus includes exposure and risk assessments as they relate to environmental and public health. She lives in the Northern Neck of Virginia with her husband and children, where she enjoys working in the yard and taking care of her flower and vegetable gardens.