News Coverage

21 June 2022

ENVIRONMENTAL DEFENSE FUND: Study Explores Demographics of Communities Living Near Oil and Gas Wells



Category: News Coverage

New research from Environmental Defense Fund published today in Population and Environment explores the demographics of people living near active oil and gas wells, finding that nearly 18 million individuals live within 1 mile of these, including disproportionately large numbers of communities of color, people living below the poverty line, older individuals and young children in many counties with active drilling across the US.

“This research puts numbers on what many residents living near wells have long voiced,” said Jeremy Proville, Director in the Office of the Chief Economist and the study’s lead author. “It also highlights the importance of comprehensive policies needed to help protect frontline communities from pollution.”

Large degree of overlap and well density

The authors identified 41 different clusters in the country with both high well density and a large degree of overlap among people who have been historically marginalized and often find themselves more exposed and vulnerable to environmental impacts. Many of these clusters are concentrated in three regions with their own unique demographic characteristics: California, the Southwest (San Juan, Eagle Ford and Permian Basins in Texas and New Mexico) and Appalachia. People who live near oil and gas operations are at an increased risk of exposure to contaminated groundwater and air pollution.

In several states, large percentages of the total population live within one mile of oil and gas wells. For example, in West Virginia and Oklahoma, more than half of the states’ residents live near wells (50.9% and 50.1% respectively), while more than a quarter (25.9%) of Ohio residents live within a mile of oil and gas wells. Almost 19% of Texans and 15% of Pennsylvanians live near active wells. The authors also identified counties where higher population shares of people who have been historically marginalized live within 1 mile of active wells than compared to the population for the wider county.

These findings illustrate the importance of strong policy approaches to protect historically vulnerable frontline communities from the harmful impacts associated with oil and gas production.

“This study highlights how overburdened communities in New Mexico and across the U.S. can bear the brunt of oil and gas waste and pollution,” said Oriana Sandoval of the Center for Civic Policy. “This is why the EPA must build from the approaches states like New Mexico are taking and finalize strong, comprehensive rules that include key provisions like frequent leak inspections even at smaller wells.”

“Spills, leaks, venting and flaring are taking a toll on our air, water and health, and rural communities, tribal communities, children and the elderly are especially at risk,” said Ahtza Dawn Chavez of the NAVA Education Project. “Navajo communities are located across a patchwork of federal, state and tribal lands where drilling affects public health and climate. We need to ensure that the federal EPA adopts strict, comprehensive air pollution rules that will help protect overburdened communities at the fence lines of oil and gas operations.”

“Hispanic communities are disproportionately affected by oil and gas pollution in many counties across California, New Mexico and Texas. EPA Administrator Michael Regan has an opportunity to protect those living closest to development by adopting strong, comprehensive rules that require inspections at all well sites and ban routine flaring,” said Maite Arce of the Hispanic Access Foundation.

Opportunities for future study

By combining data on active oil and gas well locations with census data, EDF researchers quantified the characteristics of communities living near them, then performed cluster analyses to develop an index to explore the overlaps of different groups living in high density areas. This work builds on prior analyses and is the first study to explore such a deep demographic cross section and associated overlaps on a national scale.

“We hope environmental justice organizations and community groups, policymakers, researchers and industry will use this data to create better and healthier outcomes for populations on the front lines,” Proville said.

Users can access the companion tool to look up population counts, shares, disproportionalities, and significance statistics for all population groups at four different distances from wells (1 mile, ½ mile, ¼ mile, 1/10th mile) and well type (primarily oil, gas, or both). Visit our interactive dashboard to engage with and download data.

The new analysis comes as the EPA is considering new requirements to limit methane pollution from oil and gas wells across the U.S. Leading states including Colorado and New Mexico have established requirements in recent years that help protect frontline communities from oil and gas pollution including regular inspections at smaller wells with leak-prone equipment and bans on routine flaring. EPA will have the opportunity to build from these comprehensive approaches when it issues its supplemental rule proposal later this year.

While the research does not explore the root causes of the disparities, this study provides a quantitative approach to mapping populations and environmental impacts, which the authors hope can complement other analyses of environmental injustice.

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