The Oklahoma landscape is dotted by tens of thousands of oil and gas wells, and a new study shows that living close to them comes with a clear set of health risks.
Many of these oil and gas wells are considered “conventional,” which is what most people think of when they imagine drilling for oil or gas: There’s a large reservoir of fossil fuel somewhere underground, and companies stick a giant straw into the ground to slurp it up. While burning fossil fuels is always harmful to public health and to the environment, ‘conventional’ drilling has been happening for more than a century and comes with a known and understood set of risks, including leaks and spills, pollution from the drilling itself, disruption to local wildlife, and more.
Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly called “fracking,” is a newer way to drill for fossil fuels. Fracking attempts to get fossil fuels out of harder to reach places underground by injecting water, sand, and a mix of chemicals into the ground to fracture (break up) the rock and push out the fossil fuels. Not surprisingly, this comes with its own long list of health and environmental concerns: Where does fracking wastewater go? Does fracturing all this rock lead to earthquakes? And is it safe to live near fracking sites?
A recent study gave some important answers to that last question: No, it’s not safe to live near fracking sites, and adding more fracking wells has a direct negative impact on public health.
That’s according to An analysis of the impact of unconventional oil and gas activities on public health: New evidence across Oklahoma counties, which was released in March, 2021. (The phrase “unconventional oil and gas activities” in the title is a fancy way of saying “fracking.”)
The study examined 76 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, looking at data from 1998–2017. Researchers found that more fracking sites meant higher death rates, more cancer, more cardiac arrests, more respiratory diseases, and lower life expectancies. Specifically:
“On average, 1% increase in the number of fracking wells led to a 4.2% reduction in life expectancy. Similar trends were observed for the remaining health indicators, where a 1% increase in the number of fracking wells led to a 6.8% increase in mortality rate, a 7.9% increase in cancer diseases, a 7.3% increase in cardiac diseases, and a 5.9% increase in respiratory diseases.”
To put that in perspective, the CDC says life expectancy in the United States is 78.7 years. A 4.2% reduction in life expectancy, then, means taking more than three years off of someone’s life! This is on top of the many factors that give parts of Oklahoma the lowest life expectancy in the United States.
What this study found about fracking and public health lines up with what other researchers have found, including a 2019 study that looked at Oklahoma births to show living closer to fracking wells had a negative impact on infants’ birth health, a 2016 EPA report that found fracking could harm drinking water, and a 2019 analysis from Oxford University Press that concluded fracking “not only continues to contribute to climate change but also has local and regional direct health impacts.”
All this paints a pretty clear picture that fracking is not only bad for the environment, but also bad for public health. This clearly affects Oklahoma, with our tens of thousands of oil and gas wells, but also poses a nationwide threat and raises questions of whether local, state, or federal policies can eliminate the health risks from fracking.
Ultimately, however, the safest approach is to ditch fracking altogether, and move to 100% clean and renewable energy. Renewable energy is safer, cleaner, less expensive, and without the health and environmental risks of drilling for fossil fuels.
Special thanks to Liza Martin for her help in gathering notes for this post.