Column: Balancing Energy Needs and Community Health

Credit: T. Daniel Gross/Flickr.
Oil field in the Kern River basin of Bakersfield, California.

Picture this: a beautiful river in a valley just beyond the base of a sprawling cliff. You'd expect there to be natural parks, children playing, and wild animals contributing to a balanced ecosystem.

Instead, the Kern River Valley, located in my hometown of Bakersfield, California, is surrounded by a vast field of oil and natural gas extraction sites and cluttered with hundreds of oil rigs.

My training in environmental health sciences has helped me to quantify and document the harmful health effects of widespread environmental chemical pollution. Because of my education, I have mixed emotions when I think about my hometown as well as many others like it that rely on polluting industries linked to the fossil fuel economy.

On one hand, I share the pride of community members who see these industries as a source of jobs, economic growth, and purpose. On the other hand, I am deeply concerned about negative externalities—the environmental and health impacts that innocent residents bear as a result of pollution produced by fossil fuel industries.

What is the responsibility of government and private corporations when operations of the energy sector are linked to environmental contamination that results in long-term health impacts within communities? I have often asked myself this question when I reflect about my Kern County community.

In order to ensure healthy communities while supporting the energy demands in the US, we need to consider necessary actions such as payment for the cost of negative externalities, community input on environmental projects, and investment in clean energy.

High Risks of Extraction 

There is a deeply concerning and familiar story that repeats itself in the US. Borne out of a combination of reduced government regulations, optimization of profit through business practices, and lack of rigorous health and environmental impact assessments, a corporation's operations can result in catastrophic, and sometimes irreversible, disasters that may affect a community for generations through negative externalities such as air pollution, groundwater contamination, and property value reduction resulting from these high-risk actions.

When this occurs, a settlement may be negotiated; however, it is often tragically insufficient to compensate the community for their loss of health and quality of life. Importantly, communities that are affected the most by these impacts are less privileged, further perpetuating environmental injustice.

There are numerous operations in natural resource extraction occurring in the US that affect the health of local communities. For example, there are more than 275,000 hydraulic fracturing sites scattered across counties within 21 states. And the number of hydraulically fractured wells is growing.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that approximately 20,000 new hydraulic fracturing sites were developed in the US in 2015 alone. Communities with hydraulic fracturing sites are at risk for groundwater contamination of chemicals with toxic effects on various organ systems, including the liver, nervous system, and kidneys. Although several lawsuits have been filed as a result of contamination claimed to be from hydraulic fracturing, the settlements are reactionary and insufficient.

Residents will bear high costs in healthcare services for treatment of health conditions resulting from contamination. Public agencies and municipalities extend already strained resources to monitor and mitigate environmental contamination. And representation in litigation is often privileged to those with social and political capital. This is not economically or environmentally sustainable.

Read the full story here.

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