Smoking and public health
For those of you old enough to remember, learning to smoke used to be pretty much like learning to drive. It was just something you did as a teenager and continued for most of your (shortened) life.
Tobacco ads hailed the benefits of smoking: toasted tobacco made the taste great, and if you just reached for a Lucky instead of dessert, you could keep that trim figure. Moms who smoked would be much calmer and better able to care for their babies, who would not be affected by bouncing on Mom’s knee while she puffed away. What was more impressive was that credible people — doctors, scientists, actors, Olympic athletes — were recruited to promote the health benefits of filters or toasted tobaccos to prevent throat irritation and worse.
Cigarettes and cancer? Come on. Just a bunch of alarmist whackos trying to decide what I can do with my own body.
Things changed dramatically in 1964 when the Surgeon General released the Report on Smoking and Health. The report proved a 70 percent increase in mortality for smokers over non-smokers. The scientific community quickly coalesced around the clear negative impact of smoking on health.
We’ve spent the last 50 years digging out from the public health issues created by our free smoking ways.
Oil and gas drilling and public health: same story, 50 years later
Compare that to how we think about oil and gas drilling and the practices of fracking, horizontal drilling and the use of toxic chemicals to extract minerals from the ground. I’ve frequently pointed out how drilling proponents use and misuse this quote by EPA chief Lisa Jackson to justify unregulated drilling.
Here’s how the history of tobacco and public health should instruct us about oil and gas drilling:
Much as we were with tobacco in the 1950s and early 60s, we are now in a period in which there is not yet a scientific consensus about the public health impacts of oil and gas drilling. The shale revolution has created conditions that are quickly and dramatically changing public health. The revolution has brought oil and gas drilling into people’s back yards. According to the Wall Street Journal, more than 15 million people live within a mile of an oil or gas well. Most of this has happened within the last 10 years.
Science is scrambling to catch up. There is a huge push in the academic community to study the health impacts of exposure to the toxins used in the process of oil and gas drilling, and there are now many studies that show an alarming relationship between exposure to chemicals like methane, benzene and toluene and health impacts to pregnant women, newborns, animals and people living near wells.
But there is not yet a clear smoking gun that shows a definitive relationship between drilling and health outcomes that would have the same impact as the Surgeon General’s report on smoking. That will take years.
The precautionary principle
In the meantime environmentalists find themselves in a pitched battle with the economic forces promoting shale drilling. Environmentalists focus on the “precautionary principle.” That is, if an action is suspected of causing harm to the environment or human health, then in the absence of scientific consensus, the burden of proof falls on the individual or organization taking the action.
Like the tobacco industry, the oil and gas industry rejects this analysis. They say that if you can’t prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that an environmental impact is due to drilling, then they’re going to drill baby drill. They fight tooth and nail against any regulation of their industry, and have succeeded in creating significant exemptions in most federal environmental legislation.
Think of the decades it has taken to recover from the tobacco industry’s refusal to slow down, and our public policy makers’ refusal to reign them in. Imagine that same impact from oil and gas drilling.
To refresh your understanding about the impacts of smoking, the public health impacts are a societal issue, not just a personal one. You know about the personal impacts of smoking on human health, so I won’t dwell on those. But smokers also create huge public costs. According to Center for Disease Control:
- Smoking in the United States costs more than $289 billion a year, including at least $133 billion in direct medical care for adults and more than $156 billion in lost productivity on the job.
- Secondhand smoke costs us $5.6 billion a year (2006 data) in lost productivity from exposure.
And this is 50 years after the Surgeon General’s report.
Clearly the oil and gas industry is not going to curtail their activities based on the precautionary principle. And despite the contention of companies like Energy Corporation of America that they are “good stewards” of the environment, they are hell bent on getting as much precious oil and gas out of the ground as fast as they can, the environment be damned.
Does oil and gas drilling need to be the new tobacco?
So is that it? Is fracking the new tobacco? Are we doomed to suffer the same health impacts until there is scientific consensus? And once consensus is achieved, will we then have to pay the costs of the delay for decades?
Of course not.
Oil and gas companies may not accept the precautionary principle, but elected leaders and responsible citizens in a community should. We need to protect the health of our communities now and for the future.
One way to do that is by placing reasonable restrictions on drilling. There are several components of drilling that need to be regulated to make sure that community health is protected. These include:
- Water testing: The chemical composition of surface and groundwater needs to be established prior to drilling, and then periodically after that to determine whether contamination has occurred as a result of drilling.
- Solid waste disposal: Restrictions on solid waste disposal ensure that sediment, production sand, emulsion, sludge, tanks, piping, casing, filters, filter bags, clean out traps, proppant and filter socks are disposed of without polluting soil and water.
- Liquid waste disposal: Restrictions ensure that produced water from oil wells does not seep into the ground and pollute soil, groundwater and surface waters.
- Well casings: Well casings are cement layers around a bore hole designed to isolate soil and aquifers from contamination when drilling. Oil companies need to be required to test casings to make sure they are not damaged.
- Flaring: The practice of flaring involves burning the natural gas that is a product of oil extraction. Flaring produces methane, a prime source of greenhouse gas. It is noisy, smelly and creates light 24 hours a day. The practice is often unnecessary, but oil companies do it because it is financially expedient. Smart communities hold flaring to a minimum.
- Setback requirements: Setbacks require oil construciton to be placed at distances from homes, wells, streams to protect residents, animals and water from exposure to contaminants.
- Noise: The heavy industry of drilling produces noise around the clock. Noise needs to be managed to protect community health and quality of life.
In Montana, these kinds of restrictions can be established through a process called citizen initiated zoning, which is a way to restore fairness to communities with shale oil deposits. This is currently being proposed by land owners in Carbon and Stillwater Counties.
History teaches us many lessons. The lesson of tobacco is particularly instructive for oil and gas drilling.