As a health educator in Southeastern Pennsylvania, I’ve seen firsthand just how harmful methane pollution from the oil and gas industry can be to our health. That’s why I am relieved that the Biden administration and the Environmental Protection Agency recently proposed new federal safeguards to curb methane pollution from oil and gas operations and hold polluters accountable for putting communities like mine at risk.
Still, there is more work to be done to protect the health and safety of people living on the front lines of oil and gas development, and I am urging the EPA to finalize the strongest safeguards possible to keep our air clean and safe to breathe.
My work with Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania is focused on how the process of fracking natural gas impacts health outcomes in our state. Methane pollution from this kind of development is often released alongside other dangerous pollution, including smog-causing volatile organic compounds and air toxics like the known carcinogen benzene, which can worsen asthma and respiratory disease and increase the risk of cancer. Exposure to benzene can also cause immune system damage and lead to developmental problems.
Young children, seniors, people with compromised immune systems and families living near active oil and gas sites are at the greatest risk. In Pennsylvania, nearly 1.5 million people live or work within a half mile of an active oil or gas well and face exposure to pollutants that could cause lifelong health issues. This is unacceptable — especially in a state with an Environmental Rights Amendment that guarantees every resident the right to “clean air, pure water and to the preservation of natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment.”
Fortunately, the EPA’s new proposal aims to address some of the largest sources of pollution in our state. For example, the new rule would require routine monitoring of equipment known to malfunction — a major source of methane pollution in Pennsylvania. Requiring these wells to be monitored on a regular basis and ensuring that equipment is up to date means less methane will be released into the air we breathe. This critical protection will be a game-changer for the oil and gas workers who work at these well sites, and for the nearly 1.5 million Pennsylvanians who live nearby.
The EPA’s proposed safeguards also would create a program to more quickly address super-emitters through third-party monitoring and make it harder for oil and gas companies to simply abandon wells that often continue to leak methane and other pollutants long after the operators have moved on. These are essential protections that will keep communities like mine safe, and protect the health of future generations.
Still, there is room for improvement. I am counting on the EPA to do more to ensure that my community is exposed to less pollution by strengthening the standards to address emissions from storage tanks — including those in many Pennsylvanians’ backyards. I would also like to see the EPA provide a clear pathway for communities and individuals to participate and engage in the Super Emitter Response Program, which is designed to quickly address very large leaks from the oil and gas industry, by ensuring that approved monitoring technologies and data are accessible to all. I know that members of my community are eager to support efforts to curb pollution, and are looking forward to learning more from the EPA.
The EPA has asked people from across the country, including folks like me, to weigh in on how the protections can be strengthened by submitting public comments before the Feb. 13 deadline, and by registering to participate in virtual public hearings happening Jan. 10-12. This is an opportunity for us to call for the strongest possible protections against methane pollution, to protect our neighbors, friends and family members.
Our health is on the line — we deserve the greatest level of protection from the oil and gas industry in our state, and this rule is our chance. That means clean air for all, regardless of where you live in the commonwealth.
I am eager to make my voice heard and look forward to hearing from my fellow Pennsylvanians. Let’s make sure that the EPA hears us loud and clear — Pennsylvanians want strong federal methane safeguards.
Marie DeMarco is a health educator and medical advocacy coordinator with Physicians for Social Responsibility Pennsylvania.