Fall 2016 Letter from the Director

Photo: John R. Balmes, COEH Director
John R. Balmes, COEH Director

To improve public health by reducing toxic emissions and mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, we need to reduce the combustion of fossil fuels. Because we do not burn coal for power generation in California, the fossil fuels that we use are oil and natural gas, for transportation and power generation, respectively. Not only does the combustion of oil and gas have public health and environmental impacts, but the extraction and storage of these fuels do as well.

I think most readers of Bridges realize that horizontal hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” has revolutionized oil and natural gas extraction and led to a major decrease in the reliance of the U.S. economy on imported oil.  Most readers are probably also aware of the drinking water contamination concerns associated with fracking for natural gas, especially in Pennsylvania. The oil and gas industry downplayed community concerns about fracking and water quality for years with some collusion by the Obama administration, which was delighted to see reduced reliance on coal for electricity generation due to cheaper natural gas. In 2015, however, the US EPA finally released a long-awaited study that acknowledged that fracking could contaminate drinking water (https://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/hfstudy/recordisplay.cfm?deid=244651), although the report also indicated that there was no evidence that this problem was widespread – a conclusion with which many disagree. What many people do not realize is that fracking generates considerable air pollution, primarily from the diesel equipment and trucks that are required to pump pressurized sand, water, and lubricants down the well holes and then haul the pumped natural gas to storage sites. Another somewhat overlooked issue is occupational exposures. In this issue, we highlight a report in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report by COEH faculty member Robert Harrison and colleagues of nine cases of sudden death in workers involved in oil and gas extraction in the western U.S. that appeared to be due to inhalation of hydrocarbon vapors and oxygen-deficient atmospheres when opening the hatches of hydrocarbon storage tanks.

It is not only workers who are exposed to volatile organic chemicals from natural gas storage. In October 2015, a massive release of natural gas (methane) suddenly began from a storage facility in Aliso Canyon in the Los Angeles area. The storage facility in question was a former oil well. Massive amounts of methane were released from this storage facility, almost 100,000 tons, before the leak was successfully stopped in February 2016. The greenhouse gas effect of the amount of methane released per day during the leak was equivalent to the CO2 emissions of 200,000 cars per month – an environmental disaster of enormous global warming impact. Residents of the nearby Porter Ranch community complained of multiple symptoms, including headache, nausea, and nose bleeding. Over 11,000 people were temporarily relocated and two schools were closed because of health concerns about exposure to emissions from the Aliso Canyon leak. Diane Gonzales, a doctoral student in Environmental Health Sciences at UC Berkeley and Michael Jerrett, Director of the Southern California COEH, were planning to study community exposures related to oil fracking operations in Southern California when the Aliso Canyon leak occurred. As we highlight in this issue of Bridges, Diane and Mike turned their attention to the environmental health implications of this natural gas storage disaster.

Once oil is extracted, it has to be refined and refineries are high emitters of both greenhouse gases and toxic pollutants. And refineries are usually located in communities with high proportions of people of color and low socioeconomic status. The California Air Resources Board (CARB), of which I am the Physician Member, is charged under AB32 (the Global Warming Solutions Act) with implementing policies to mitigate climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. AB32 also gives CARB the goal of benefiting disadvantaged communities with climate change policies. One CARB policy that has been seriously opposed by environmental justice advocates is cap-and-trade, which while overall reducing greenhouse gas emissions from covered entities allows high-emitting facilities to buy emission credits from cleaner facilities that have excess credits. Environmental justice advocates have argued for some time that cap-and-trade perpetuates “hot spots” of pollution in disadvantaged communities, including those with adjacent refineries. COEH faculty member Rachel Morello-Frosch and colleagues recently released a research brief that provides evidence in support of this environmental justice argument (http://dornsife.usc.edu/PERE/enviro_equity_CA_cap_trade). Refinery emissions of greenhouse gases actually went up in 2014 compared to a 2011 baseline and four of the top 10 highest emitters were refineries. Moreover, the study also showed a close correlation of high emissions of greenhouse gases with high emissions of a pollutant regulated to protect public health, particulate matter that can deposit in the airways and deep lungs, PM10. Morello-Frosch and colleagues conclude from their findings that the biggest public health impact from greenhouse gas emission control policies would come from targeting high emitting facilities.

If we as Californians want cleaner air and progress toward slowing global warming, we need to work together to reduce our reliance on natural gas and oil for both energy production and transportation.

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