A Spanish version of this article is available here.
More than 1 million Californians live near active oil or gas wells, potentially exposing them to drilling-related pollution that can contribute to asthma, preterm births and a variety of other health problems.
A new study appearing today in the journal GeoHealth finds that these Californians are disproportionately Black, Latinx or low-income, and Black Californians are more likely to live near the most intensive oil and gas operations.
“When we look across the state of California over the past 15 years, Black, Latinx and low-income people consistently were more likely to live near oil and gas wells,” said study first author David González, a President’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. “Black people, in particular, were more likely to be in places that had the most intensive oil and gas production, which can lead to more exposure to harmful chemicals.”
The study also found that while oil and gas production in California has declined over the past 15 years, the rate of decrease has been slower near racially marginalized communities. Earlier work led by González found that disparities in exposure to oil and gas wells can be traced back to the 1930s in Los Angeles and linked to the historical policy of redlining.
“What’s emerging is that oil and gas wells have been disproportionately impacting racially marginalized and low-income communities in California for generations,” González said. “We found that redlining was strongly associated with the disproportionate siting of oil and gas wells in historically racially marginalized communities, and we’re still seeing disproportionate siting and production of oil and gas infrastructure in many of these same neighborhoods today.”
Oil and gas production is a complex process that can release an array of hazardous pollutants: Drilling rigs and other heavy machinery emit diesel exhaust, active wells can release toxic volatile organic compounds, and in some cases, the chemicals that are used to extract oil from underground reservoirs can seep into the water supply, endangering those who rely on groundwater for drinking. Operating heavy drilling machinery in residential areas can also create other stressors, like light and sound pollution.
Mounting evidence suggests that these pollutants pose a variety of health risks to those who live close to wells — that distance usually is defined as living within 1 kilometer (km), or a little over half a mile.
The California climate measures signed into law last September by Gov. Gavin Newsom contained provisions that would ban new drilling within approximately 1 km of homes, schools, hospitals and parks and provide protections for those living near existing wells. But in early February, oil companies succeeded in putting the law on hold until voters decide its fate in a November 2024 ballot referendum.
“The weight of scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that people living near oil and gas development have a greater risk of respiratory problems and adverse birth outcomes,” said Seth B.C. Shonkoff, executive director of PSE Healthy Energy and an associate researcher at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health. “Attempts to undermine or delay California’s landmark setback law contradict the science and increase public health risks, particularly for Black and brown communities.”
Given the complexity of oil and gas operations, many studies only consider proximity to wells when investigating the health risks of oil and gas production. However, this focus on proximity may mask additional disparities in the hazards posed by more intensive production, the researchers said.
The current study, which found that Black Californians are more likely to be exposed to more intensive oil productions, might help explain why some studies have found that the health risks associated with living near wells are higher for racially and socioeconomically marginalized people.
Rachel Morello-Frosch, professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management and the study’s senior author, said she hopes the paper makes clear the health equity implications of the oil and gas industry in California.
“This study advances scientific understanding about the origins and persistence of racialized inequities in exposure to oil and gas extraction in California, which in turn has significant implications for regulatory interventions that center environmental justice in protecting community health from this well-documented environmental hazard,” Morello-Frosch said.
In addition to the 1 million Californians who live near active or retired wells, nearly 9 million — 20% of the population — live close to wells that have been plugged and abandoned, some as early as the 1800s. While wells that have been plugged in recent years are held to rigorous environmental standards, other studies have found that some of these older wells may still be emitting toxic chemicals that could be harmful to those living nearby.
“The most common exposure to oil and gas infrastructure in California was to plugged and abandoned wells,” González said. “From a public health perspective, it’s not clear how worried we should be about plugged wells. But given how many people live near them, I think it’s important to ask more questions and take care when we retire wells so we don’t create problems down the road.”
Additional study co-authors include Claire M. Morton of Stanford University; Lee Ann L. Hill, Drew R. Michanowicz and Robert J. Rossi of PSE Healthy Energy; and Joan A. Casey of the University of Washington. This study was supported by the California Air Resources Board (#18RD018) and National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (R00 ES027023)
Temporal Trends of Racial and Socioeconomic Disparities in Population Exposures to Upstream Oil and Gas Development in California (GeoHealth)
More oil and gas wells in redlined neighborhoods
Living near oil and gas wells tied to low birth weights in infants
A Spanish translation of this article is available here.
研究第一作者、加州大学伯克利分校 (University of California，Berkeley) 校长博士后研究员大卫·冈萨雷斯 (David gonz á lez) 说: “在过去的15年里，当我们观察加利福尼亚州时，黑人、拉丁裔和低收入人群总是更有可能生活在油气井附近。”“特别是黑人，更有可能在石油和天然气生产最密集的地方，这可能导致更多的接触有害化学物质。”
研究还发现，尽管过去15年来加利福尼亚州的石油和天然气产量有所下降，但在种族边缘化社区附近，下降速度却较慢。冈萨雷斯 (gonz á lez) 领导的早期工作发现，油气井暴露的差异可以追溯到洛杉矶的20世纪30年代，并与历史的红线政策有关。
越来越多的证据表明，这些污染物对居住在水井附近的人构成各种健康风险-通常将距离定义为居住在1公里 (km) 以内或半英里多一点。
加州气候措施去年9月由州长签署成为法律。加文·纽瑟姆 (Gavin Newsom) 的规定将禁止在大约1千米的房屋，学校，医院和公园内进行新钻探，并为居住在现有水井附近的人们提供保护。但是在2月初，石油公司成功地搁置了该法律，直到选民在2024年11月投票中决定其命运。
“科学证据的分量清楚地表明，生活在石油和天然气开发附近的人有更大的呼吸系统问题和不良分娩结果的风险，” Seth B.C. Shonkoff说，PSE健康能源的执行董事，加州大学伯克利分校公共卫生学院的副研究员。“试图破坏或推迟加州具有里程碑意义的挫折法与科学相矛盾，并增加了公共卫生风险，特别是对黑人和棕色社区而言。”
其他研究合著者包括斯坦福大学的克莱尔·莫顿 (Claire M. Morton); PSE健康能源公司的Lee Ann L. Hill，Drew R. Michanowicz和Robert J. Rossi; 和华盛顿大学的琼·凯西 (Joan A. Casey)。这项研究得到了加州空气资源委员会 (#18RD018) 和国家环境健康科学研究所 (R00 ES027023) 的支持