Toward Consistent Methodology to Quantify Populations in Proximity to Oil and Gas Development

Seventeen Million in U.S. Live Near Active Oil or Gas Wells

image of Confirmed active well counts by U.S. county

A number of studies indicate that there may be negative health outcomes associated with living in close proximity to oil and gas development. Degraded air quality; surface water, groundwater and soil contamination; and elevated noise and light pollution are exposure pathways that contribute to potential human health impacts.

Studies have identified multiple symptoms reported by residents living with oil and gas infrastructure in their communities, including respiratory symptoms, such as nose, eye, and throat irritation; headaches; and fatigue, among others.

One study has pointed to increased hospitalization rates for multiple medical categories, including cardiology, neurology, and oncology. Increased asthma incidence and severity has also been reported in Pennsylvania.

Preliminary epidemiological studies that use distance of oil and gas development as the exposure metric have found positive associations with adverse birth outcomes, including preterm birth, lower birth weight, and small for gestational age, as well as neural tube defects and congenital heart defects.

Studies also identified increased incidence of childhood hematologic cancer among children that live in close proximity to oil and gas development compared to those that live farther away.

While many findings in the public health literature on oil and gas development are sometimes inconsistent and studies often lack the designs to arrive at causal claims, the body of literature serves as an indication that proximity to oil and gas development is associated with adverse health risks and impacts.

Previous Population Proximity Studies

Public concern and the public health scientific literature to date has spurred interest in quantitative assessments of populations potentially at increased risk of health impacts from living in close proximity to oil and gas development. Four peer-reviewed studies were published in the last 2 y: two reporting population counts, and three reporting demographic subgroups. Three additional studies were identified in the gray literature. The earliest study we could identify was published in The Wall Street Journal. This early study has substantial methodological flaws, but is included in our review because it was the first published attempt to quantify populations near oil and gas wells.

2017 Study Abstract

Higher risk of exposure to environmental health hazards near oil and gas wells has spurred interest in quantifying populations that live in proximity to oil and gas development. The available studies on this topic lack consistent methodology and ignore aspects of oil and gas development of value to public health–relevant assessment and decision-making.

We aim to present a methodological framework for oil and gas development proximity studies grounded in an understanding of hydrocarbon geology and development techniques.

We geospatially overlay locations of active oil and gas wells in the conterminous United States and Census data to estimate the population living in proximity to hydrocarbon development at the national and state levels. We compare our methods and findings with existing proximity studies.

Nationally, we estimate that 17.6 million people live within 1,600 m (∼1 mi) of at least one active oil and/or gas well. Three of the eight studies overestimate populations at risk from actively producing oil and gas wells by including wells without evidence of production or drilling completion and/or using inappropriate population allocation methods. The remaining five studies, by omitting conventional wells in regions dominated by historical conventional development, significantly underestimate populations at risk.

The well inventory guidelines we present provide an improved methodology for hydrocarbon proximity studies by acknowledging the importance of both conventional and unconventional well counts as well as the relative exposure risks associated with different primary production categories (e.g., oil, wet gas, dry gas) and developmental stages of wells.

More Information

  • Toward Consistent Methodology to Quantify Populations in Proximity to Oil and Gas Development: A National Spatial Analysis and Review, Environmental Health Perspectives, DOI:10.1289/EHP1535, AUGUST 2017 | VOLUME 125 | ISSUE 8.
  • Seventeen Million in US Live Near Active Oil or Gas Wells, Truthout, September 06, 2017.
  • Featured image credit EHP : confirmed active well counts by U.S. county. Well data are from DrillingInfo. Administrative boundaries are from the U.S. Census Bureau.

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