Media Briefings

Local impacts of oil & gas extraction

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Oil and gas extraction contributes to the U.S. economy, employs workers, and plays an important role in meeting the country’s energy needs. Extensive research has shown, however, that this activity also poses health and environmental risks for nearby communities. SciLine’s media briefing covered the health effects of air pollution associated with oil and gas projects; the environmental impacts of wastewater discharge and re-use from oil and gas activities; and how these projects affect jobs and the economy at the community level.

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RICK WEISS: Rick Weiss here. I’m the director of SciLine. Welcome, everyone, to this SciLine media briefing on Local Impacts of Oil and Gas Extraction. For those of you who may not be familiar with SciLine, let me take one quick minute to introduce ourselves. We are a philanthropically supported, editorially independent, free service for reporters with one mission, which is to help reporters get more research-based scientific evidence into your news stories. We do this through a variety of free services, including the day-to-day matching service through which you can get in touch with us on our website, tell us what story you’re working on, what kind of expertise you need, and we reach into a large database we have of excellent scientists who are articulate and have great communication skills and can help you with your stories. We offer a variety of other services you can check out on the website, but one of them, of course, is to host media briefings like this one in which we will offer some comments from a handful of experts on a topic and have live Q&A afterwards.

Before we get started on this one, I just want to mention in advance that, in addition to this media briefing this week, which is our monthly media briefing, we will be doing an extra one on Thursday focused especially on helpful tips for covering the COVID-19 pandemic. So if you are a reporter, whether you come with a health and science background or you’re a general assignment or a local reporter who has been reassigned to cover this ongoing story, please join us on Thursday at 2 o’clock for a briefing that will help you cover this fast-moving story. Details will be on our website after this briefing.

So now I’d like to just very briefly introduce our three speakers for today. Their full bios are on our website, so no need to spend a lot of time on this now. But I will tell you, you will hear first from Dr. Lisa McKenzie. She is an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health at UC Denver Colorado School of Public Health, and she’s going to talk in particular about issues of air quality in regions where there is oil and gas exploration going on and the impacts of those air quality issues on human health.

Our second speaker will be Dr. Seth Shonkoff. He is the executive director of PSE Healthy Energy, which is a nonprofit research institute based in Oakland, Calif., and also a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley who’s going to focus on water issues and, in particular, on issues surrounding the use of so-called produced water, which – he’ll explain some of this effluent from the oil and gas exploration process and some of the health issues linked to the use of that water in various situations.

And our third speaker is going to be Dr. Seth Blumsack, who’s a professor of energy and environmental economics and international affairs at Penn State University, who’s going to talk about some of the economic impacts on local communities that find themselves at the center of oil and gas exploration. So with that, let’s just go to the top and move to Dr. Lisa McKenzie.


Air Quality from Oil and Gas Extraction and Human Health


LISA MCKENZIE: Thank you, Rick. And I’m just going to go to getting my screen shared here. OK. OK. So I’m going to start with talking a little bit about the air pollution. And so we have many studies now that are showing that upstream oil and natural gas well sites are emitting air pollutants as well as noise and vibrations. And so one of the air pollution studies I’d like to describe to you – it’s a large study that was done here in Colorado in 2014. This was the Front Range Air Pollution and Photochemistry Experiment. It’s also referred to as the FRAPPE experiment. And in that experiment, NOAA, NCAR and NASA scientists observed that oil and gas operations were emitting precursors that contributed significantly to the ground-level ozone levels here along Colorado’s Front Range. And other studies in Texas, Pennsylvania and Oklahoma have observed – have come to similar conclusions. Additionally, several studies also have now indicated that oil and natural gas well sites can emit hazardous air pollutants, and a particular concern among these is benzene.

Both the Environmental Protection Agency and the International Research Agency on Cancer have classified benzene as a known human carcinogen, and it’s also a mutagen. Additionally, benzene affects the blood. Dr. Halliday and her team, during this FRAPPE experiment, documented the benzene levels exceeding the Center for Disease Control’s recommended levels for both short-term exposures or what we call acute exposures. And these were occurring in the early morning hours, and that’s when people are most likely to be home. So we were particularly concerned about that finding. Recently, we measured noise – both audible and vibrational noise – around a multiwell site here in Colorado that was located in a residential area. We actually had our measurements done at a person’s home. And we measured these noise levels. We found that they were at levels that can impact both people’s sleep and their cardiovascular health, and we made similar observations for particulate matter. So moving on to kind of how we go about looking at – putting these exposures into health studies. So while we know that these sites are emitting air pollutants, the monitoring data that’s suitable for using in health – human health study is lacking, and that’s particularly true for the hazardous air pollutants.

Given this lack of monitoring data, several of the epidemiological studies have estimated exposures to air pollutants using proximity models. And the simplest form of the proximity model is the inverse distance weighted model, and that’s shown here on the left here on the screen. What we do is we first measure the distance of each well from a participant’s home in a predetermined buffer we establish around the home. Then we take the inverse of the distance, or one divided by the distance, of each of those wells and sum them. And the reason why we take the inverse of the distance is that that gives greater weight in our exposure assessment to the wells that are closest to the home. There – as we’ve evolved through this, there are now more complex proximity models that take into account the phase going on – phase of development, whether it’s drilling or fracking or well completions – and as well as other activities and equipment on the well site. And what these models can do is provide an estimate for unique exposure for each participant in the study that can then be linked to the participant’s health information.

And to date, most of this health information has been coming from state registries, health care system records, health insurance records. So for example, in Colorado, Texas and Oklahoma has been – we’ve been primarily relying on birth registries and cancer registries. In Pennsylvania, several of the studies have been using – done using the Geisinger Health Care System records. More recently, here in Colorado, in one study, we’ve actually had volunteers where we’ve been able to measure some indicators of health effects in those subjects. So using these methods, the researchers – primarily in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Texas – have observed several health conditions that are more likely as proximity to oil and natural gas wells increase. In two Colorado studies, our group observed that children were more likely to be born with a congenital heart defect if their mother lived in an area with the highest density of oil and natural gas wells in the second month of her pregnancy. We also observed that particular types of congenital heart defects were more likely with proximity – with increasing proximity to oil and gas sites. In a study in Oklahoma, Janice’s team had similar observations. Also, several studies now in Pennsylvania and Texas have indicated that low birth weight and preterm infants are more likely in the areas with the most oil and gas activity.

Likewise, several studies in Pennsylvania are indicating that proximity to oil and gas wells exasperates asthma. Preliminary studies – and what I mean by preliminary studies is right now there’s only one study indicating these health outcomes, so we’d like to have more corroborating evidence before we would take them out of preliminary – and they’re indicating increased likelihood of depression, childhood leukemia, as well as night – nasal, sinus, migraine and fatigue symptoms. Additionally, our one study in Colorado where we had volunteers that we could actually measure some health outcomes – we found that our volunteers that were living with the most oil and gas around them had the highest blood pressure levels.

Now, these levels were not high blood pressure, like clinically high blood pressure; they were just higher, about six points higher than people living further away. So the strength of these studies has been their ability to evaluate large populations using fairly similar methods, and what we want to do in the future is work more on the exposure models, improve the exposure models. And what we would really like to be able to do is do what we call a prospective study, where we can measure health outcomes and personal exposures moving forward in time with people. And I will conclude there and then allow my colleagues to give their presentations. Thank you.

RICK WEISS: Thanks, Lisa. That’s a – fascinating correlations there. Dr. Shonkoff, focus on water.

Re-Use of Produced Water from Oil and Gas Extraction


SETH SHONKOFF: Yes. Hello, everyone. I’m going to get my slides queued up now. OK. OK. Can everyone see my slides?

RICK WEISS: Looks good.

SETH SHONKOFF: OK. Excellent. So thank you again for joining, everyone, and thanks to SciLine for the invitation to talk about some of our work looking at oil and gas wastewater reuse, specifically for food crop irrigation in California, and looking at this issue through a public health lens. So I’m going to start by just defining my terms for those that are new to this space. So produced water is essentially wastewater which is coproduced with oil and gas, and this produced water can contain things like salts, petroleum hydrocarbons, chemical additives, chemical transformation byproducts – meaning the interaction between compounds and what their outcomes are. And an important note is that produced water is a significant pillar of oil and gas production in general. In the state of California – and this is not particularly strange; this is the way it is in many oil and gas states – the average produced water to oil ratio is around 10 barrels of water for every 1 barrel of oil. So in that way, again, produced water is a significant waste stream which requires management.

And one of the ways that the oil and gas industry has been managing this produced water waste stream in California in a limited sense, but in a growing sense as well, is by sending produced water from some of their oil fields off to irrigate agriculture and, in particular, crops that are grown for human consumption. So when thinking about this issue from a public health perspective, there’s a variety of questions that are relevant. First off, what are the naturally occurring chemical constituents that are mobilized from the oil and gas reservoir? Also, what are the chemicals used in oil and gas operations that are likely to be in produced water that could change the quality of that produced water and create hazards in and of themselves? Next, how do you know what you know about produced water quality and how do you gain access to the information through monitoring approaches that would enable one to be able to effectively manage the risk of using this water for things like irrigating food crops? What are the – which compounds are actively taken up into the edible portion of crops?

And finally, what are some of the health hazards of occupational settings, where people are working in agricultural fields where produced water is being applied to food crops? And for the purpose of this, I’m going to just focus on some of the findings of some of our ongoing work on the chemical additives portion of this issue. So what we did – and I sit on a – I’ve been appointed to a food safety expert panel by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board in the state of California who oversees and permits this issue. And what we found when we obtained chemical usage information from the fields that provide produced water for agricultural irrigation is that, first of all, there’s a lot of chemicals being used. And it’s also noteworthy that there is no hydraulic fracturing in these oil fields. One thing that we’re learning is that there’s a lot of chemical use throughout the oil and gas development process for routine activities such as routine maintenance and drilling.

And what we found when applying the chemicals that were disclosed to a set of criteria based on acute toxicity, biodegradability, bioaccumulation potential, carcinogenicity and other factors is that approximately 30% of the compounds disclosed fell into a category of potential chemicals of concern. About 35% fell into a category that we would call nonhazardous or of limited human health hazard. And then almost 40% fell under a category of trade secrets, meaning we don’t know what the compound is, and so they could all end up in the chemicals of concern category or all end up in the nonhazardous category. We don’t know. So, you know, one thing that I’d like to leave you with is water is increasingly scarce. And the reuse of water resources and the use and reuse of emerging water resources such as municipal wastewater recycling – otherwise known as the unfortunate term toilet-to-tap – this activity’s been happening in the state of California and other states for a long time.

Now, the thing that distinguishes municipal wastewater recycling from produced wastewater – oil and gas produced wastewater recycling is the body of regulations that manage the risk in those practices. So while there are very detailed regulations in the municipal wastewater recycling space – for example, what treatment and monitoring is required prior to reusing that water for specific purposes ranging from agricultural irrigation to drinking water – produced water doesn’t have the same level of stringency in its regulations and has less monitoring associated with it, which introduces some risk that doesn’t exist with municipal wastewater recycling. So in terms of my key takeaways I’d like to leave you all with is oil and gas production generates a significant liquid waste stream which requires management, and one of those management options is discharge to the surface and otherwise reusing produced water for purposes outside of the oil and gas industry.

There are chemicals of concern that are sourced from the oil reservoirs themselves as well as chemical use in oil and gas operations that are known to be present in produced water. Chemical use is not specific to hydraulic fracturing, and chemical use is widespread throughout oil and gas development. And finally, current approaches to produced water quality monitoring are insufficient to appropriately answer human health hazard questions of irrigating food crops with produced water, but there are emerging approaches that are showing some promise. And with that, I’ll look forward to Q&A, and I’m happy to answer any questions. Thank you.

RICK WEISS: Thank you, Seth. Super interesting and lots of questions I have there, but I’ll be patient. Dr. Seth Blumsack, Penn State, let’s talk a little bit about the economic and jobs side of community impacts here.

Local Economic Impacts of Oil and Gas Extraction


SETH BLUMSACK: OK. So thanks to SciLine for inviting me to do this, and thanks to everybody who is participating. I – so I don’t have slides because they would just have a lot of text on them, but I’m certainly happy to take the points that I’m going to make and hand them over to the SciLine folks in some form that they can be distributed once this is over. So the emergence of these unconventional oil and gas plays particularly in Appalachian states – Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, the Bakken oil field in North Dakota and Montana and the sort of latest one, the – in the – the Permian Basin in West Texas and New Mexico has certainly had a lot of economic impacts in the communities that are hosting these activities. The – sort of the biggest one which people often think about is the size of the workforce that is necessary to – you know, to extract and process and deliver these oil and gas resources.

And so in all of these areas, this activity has had associated with it just thousands of employment opportunities in oil and gas positions, but also in complementary and sort of supporting industries like trucking, waste disposal, service industries like food service, housing and things like that. One thing to keep in mind about this part of the overall economic impact picture is that we often talk about or use this term job creation, which is a very difficult term to use in my view. And the reason is that when we talk about job creation, you know, we often imply that these are new jobs that are being created that are going to employ people who are otherwise unemployed. And in oil and gas, as with any other industry that is experiencing growth, this isn’t always true. If there’s a job that’s created in the oil and gas sector, that may be a new position that is going to take somebody who is just out of school or from unemployment, or it may be a position that is going to induce a worker to move from one industry to another, right?

And so it can be difficult to correlate the numbers of jobs created with things like the overall unemployment rate because it can be very difficult to tease apart, you know, positions in oil and gas that are filled by new workers versus those that are moving into the sector from other industries. So other than employment opportunities, the biggest benefits have largely accrued to – or the biggest local benefits have largely accrued to property owners – right? – who – in drilling areas who have benefited from rising land values, rising housing values and revenue gained from leasing surface or subsurface mineral rights to oil and gas production companies.

And then also, it’s also worth noting that in a lot of the communities into which companies have gone, there have been investments made in various kinds of community services. And so these are things like libraries, community centers, playgrounds, road improvements and things like that. And all of these things are – those are pretty clear benefits to the local communities that are hosting this – you know, that are hosting this activity. But along with these benefits have also come some challenges. One of the most obvious to folks who are living in these drilling areas is the increase in property values that has affected people who, you know, live in these areas and are not homeowners – so people who are in the rental market. And so as oil and gas extraction activity has increased, rental costs and housing costs in general in these areas have increased rapidly. And so increases in rental rates of 20% to 30% or more per year have not been uncommon in basically any of these unconventional drilling areas. You know, single-family residences that used to rent for about $1,000 a month have been renting for several thousand dollars per month and so forth.

On top of this, while in these areas there have been, you know, things like new hotels and apartment complexes and other things like that, in a lot of these areas, it doesn’t appear that additions to the housing stock have kept – it doesn’t appear that additions to the housing stock have kept up with demand. And so one of the things that has happened is that even though the population of oil and gas workers can be very transient – right? – they may spend several weeks or months working in one area, and then they’ll move to another area. You know, despite this kind of population, the vacancy rates for rental properties in areas where there has been a lot of unconventional oil and gas drilling have been very low. And so there have been a number of months in multiple areas where the vacancy rate for rentals has fallen below 5%, and that’s an indicator of a, you know, pretty tight rental market. And then also, as you’ve had more people, some of whom are, you know, not permanent residents, moving into, you know, into these areas where this activity is happening, this has also strained a number of different essential services.

So things like police, medical services, emergency response and other kinds of social services have all, at various times, been in a situation where they are seeing kind of higher demand than they have in the past. The – and so there are benefits, and there are costs. One thing I think it’s important not to forget is that even though these unconventional oil and gas plays are very new and some of them are still growing very rapidly and, you know, it’s new technology that is making all of this possible, this, you know, this sector of the industry is not immune from the kind of economic boom and bust cycle that is characteristic of many other natural resource development activities. And so these periods of very rapid economic growth that, you know, have happened in unconventional oil and gas areas have really happened during periods of very high capital spend activity – so periods where you’re drilling and completing a lot of wells, completing a lot of pipeline infrastructure, processing plants, things like that.

And so what some of the more mature unconventional oil and gas plays have seen is that this period of extreme growth both in drilling activity and economic activity has been followed by kind of a plateau of a much lower level of economic activity. And this is basically happening for a few different reasons. The first is that activities like drilling wells and laying pipeline require a large workforce, right? Whereas once the wells are drilled and the pipeline infrastructure and other things are in place, the workforce required to maintain oil and gas production from existing wells is very – is much smaller, maybe around kind of one-tenth of the size of the workforce. Second is that as operators have gained more experience with hydraulic fracturing technology, they have gotten a lot more efficient, and so they have been able to drill more wells with a smaller labor force. And so even during the growth periods where you have, you know, a lot of activity, the labor force that’s needed to (inaudible) the wells is not as – you know, not as large as it was. And the third contributor to the – you know, to the boom and bust cycle is that a lot of this – a lot of the development of these unconventional shale plays has been very, very rapid. So you have a lot of companies trying to get in and drill all at once, right?

And that rapid influx of activity has contributed to price volatility and price crashes and has wound up – and has wound up, you know, essentially stranding a lot of oil and gas investments that are – you know, where wells are completed or the oil or gas isn’t able to get to market because of constraints elsewhere in the energy infrastructure, like pipelines and things that need to catch up. And the last point I’ll make on this is that those areas that have been able to maintain a relatively high level of overall economic activity around oil and gas – so not just drilling wells and completing pipelines and things like that – those areas that have been able to maintain more sustainable economic development are those where oil and gas development is not really – it is not necessarily an end of its – an end in and of itself. It’s not purely an export industry, but those areas where you basically have been able to couple oil and gas development with, you know, broader – with broader economic development in other areas.

And so an example of this is around the unconventional natural gas play in southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia and Ohio, which has been able to maintain employment levels in the oil and gas sector that have been several times larger than other areas of the Appalachian natural gas play. And the reason for this is that the – is that gas development in that southwestern Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio area is being increasingly coupled with manufacturing and petrochemical processing – you know, industries that are able to create some kind of value-added use for the oil and gas that’s being produced locally, as opposed to, you know, simply extracting the oil and gas and moving it to other parts of, you know, other parts of the country where demand is higher or, in the case of oil and liquefied natural gas, exporting it to other countries.

And so the – sort of the take-home message here is to recognize that, you know, oil and gas, like other examples of natural resource development, can be a means to broader economic development, as an economic development engine in and of itself is often subject to these kinds of boom-bust cycles, even in these unconventional gas and oil plays where you have just an extensive resource base and you have unconventional technology or you have new technology that is making this unconventional recovery, you know, very possible and very economic.

RICK WEISS: Great. Very interesting how this plays out. Seth, thank you very much. We’re now going to move to the Q&A portion here. I’ll remind reporters who are logged in that you can submit your question in the Q&A box that I think is at the bottom of your screen, and I will – and go ahead and mention if you would like to have that question directed to one of our speakers or the other, but I will also have all of them chime in, as appropriate, to answer any of the questions we get.


To what extent is produced water being used on agricultural crops?


RICK WEISS: So I’d like to start with one here just to get things off the ground, and I wonder if, Seth Shonkoff, if you could address the question of to what extent is produced water being used on agricultural crops? You mentioned in particular the work in California, but I wonder if there are other states or regions where this is becoming popular. And how common or uncommon is it still?

SETH SHONKOFF: Yeah, that’s a great question. So the answer is it’s actually still relatively uncommon, at least in the permitted, aboveboard sense, which is really the sense that we have because that’s where the data is. So in California, you know, I should be clear, the oil fields that are currently providing produced water for agricultural irrigation are strange in their petrogeologic histories. They’re much lower salinity than most produced water, which makes it attractive to agricultural producers. What we do know is that there’s been at least talk about a massive increase in reuse of produced water throughout the country and, in particular, in the Western states. And this is evidenced by a big push by the Environmental Protection Agency recently to investigate opportunities for this type of produced water reuse.

There was a memorandum of understanding signed between the Environmental Protection Agency and the state of New Mexico basically to come to a point of resolve that they would figure out how to reuse produced water for drinking water. So the – you know, I think that this reuse space with respect to produced water is still in its infancy. And, in my opinion, there are a number of issues – most notably, in the chemical characterization of produced water and the monitoring of that produced water – that need to be undertaken prior to a safe and low-risk movement forward. But this is where we are at this juncture.

Are companies proposing any environmental buffers to protect surrounding areas?


RICK WEISS: Sounds like a great journalistic opportunity to get in on something in the early stages and draw whatever attention is appropriate to draw to it, so thanks for that. We have a question here from Max Levy (ph), freelance reporter, for Dr. McKenzie. Are companies proposing any environmental buffers such as trees or walls to protect the surrounding area and people without stopping production?

LISA MCKENZIE: So they are. So a lot of the well sites – at least here in Colorado – have – when they’re in a residential area, have a sound wall around them. But the noise measurements we took were with that sound wall in place, so it wasn’t terribly effective on lowering this noise to a level that would not impact health and be an annoyance to people also. And several of the sites have also – have put vegetation around them, particularly as they finish the development of the site. And how well those will block the noise, I’m not sure. Neither one of those measures will do much to – with anything with the air pollutants. Those are going to be admitted and off the site. So the answer is, yes, they’re doing things, but we’re not sure, really, what those barriers do to prevent air pollution or noise pollution. And they also don’t help with the vibrations. People actually feel that vibrational noise in their homes. We’ve had a lot of anecdotal evidence of that, and we’ve measured it. So that’s – yeah.

Are there studies on long-term health impacts for people living near orphan wells?


RICK WEISS: Interesting. There’s a follow up question for you, Lisa, from a freelance reporter, Sara Van Note (ph), who’s asking, are there studies on long-term health impacts for folks living near orphan wells and other “closed” – in quotes – oil and gas infrastructure? She says she’s looking ahead to the bust part of the cycle that Seth Blumsack mentioned.

LISA MCKENZIE: No. There are none that I am aware of at this time. We do know, though, that this is a potential issue. Here in Colorado, we had a loss of life with a line on an abandoned well that had not been kept properly that resulted in a home exploding. And so this abandoned well issue is both of concern from, you know, that really big-S safety concern and then possibly emissions going forward. And we need to do studies on that, and they haven’t been done.

SETH SHONKOFF: If I could just sort of add to what Dr. McKenzie is saying – there have been – you know, I agree this is an emerging issue. It’s something which we’ve seen pop up in policy conversations and science conversations all over the country, the issue of abandoned, plugged and orphaned wells and what hazard and risk they may pose to human health and the climate. There have – there’s been a few studies scattered throughout the country looking at emissions from these types of wells, one of which was in Pennsylvania, which found, actually, surprising amounts of methane emitted from some of these wells. And my understanding is that they did not characterize the other air pollution species that could be co-emitted with that methane in that particular study, but that kind of information would be very useful from a risk management perspective.

What kind of wells in California are the main source of produced water?


RICK WEISS: OK. It sounds like Sarah was right to put closed in quotes. Maybe they’re not as closed as they seem. A follow-up question while you’re on, Seth Shonkoff, from Max Levy – are most of these California reservoirs offshore, onshore, near the surface? Do we have an understanding of the chemical additive differences that result from the different reservoir locations?

SETH SHONKOFF: Great question also. So all of the oil fields that provide produced water for irrigation of agriculture in at least the state of California – and I think I can say everywhere where this practice occurs or may occur – they’re all from onshore wells. The oil fields which are providing produced water for irrigation in California – they’re all oil fields which rely on the injection of water and steam – so enhanced oil recovery using water and steam, not hydraulic fracturing for their production. And, you know, as I noted in my talk but didn’t have quite enough time to get into it, something that we’ve been noticing as we look at these fields as well as other fields in the Los Angeles Basin, where there’s actually chemical disclosure policies that are unlike any others in the country, where they’re requiring disclosure of chemical use from non-hydraulically fractured, non-well-stimulated operations – what we’re learning is that there is, actually, first of all, quite a bit of overlap with these routine chemical use activities and hydraulic fracturing and that there might actually be more chemicals used outside of hydraulic fracturing than within hydraulic fracturing. And we’ve also learned, as have many other researchers in the field, that produced water itself is highly variable across geographic, geological and corporate space. And that also makes it difficult to ascertain, you know, what an effective water quality monitoring program or water quality treatment program would be should reuse of produced water be scaled in other places and for other fit-for-purpose activities.

Will there be short-term impacts on local communities as a result of the current international drops in oil prices?


RICK WEISS: Thank you. A question for Dr. Blumsack – do you expect to see short-term impacts on local communities as a result of the international drops in prices of oil going on now?

SETH BLUMSACK: So this is something that is – you know, it’s very much an emerging – you know, an emerging topic, and it’s something that I know a lot of people are paying attention to as it evolves. At this point, it is very difficult to say. What has – I think what is – I mean, what’s becoming clear is that, you know, if oil prices in particular – right? – sort of stay below that kind of $35-per-barrel level for a sustained period of time, then this is going to cause a basic cash flow problem for a lot of unconventional oil operators in particular, right? And, you know, the extent to which there have been or will be, you know, things like layoffs or, you know, halting in drilling activity, it’s just – it’s a little too soon to say yet. But without a substantial recovery in – you know, in prices for oil, natural gas and other – you know, other liquids like ethane and propane and things like that, you know, some kind of slowdown that is going to hit communities at the local level is increasingly likely.

Does flaring contribute to air and noise pollution?


RICK WEISS: Question from Ali Withers, freelance reporter, for Dr. McKenzie – are there studies that look specifically at flaring’s effects on air pollution and/or noise pollution?

LISA MCKENZIE: I am not aware of studies that are looking – studies that have actually measured the noise with flares or the actual air pollution with flares, but we – am I…

RICK WEISS: You’re good.

LISA MCKENZIE: Sorry. OK. I got another message there. So – but we do know, I mean, just from, you know, being out at the sites and what residents have reported, that flaring is a loud event and that there is some emission of VOCs that aren’t combusted with that and also nitrogen oxides with the flaring that contribute to ground-level ozone formation. But there is one study that – while not measuring the air pollutants and noise particularly associated with flaring – that’s just come out. It was from Jill Johnston’s group in California that looked at what types of communities had more flaring in them in the Eagle Ford in Texas. And she is indicating some potential environmental justice issues, that areas that tend to be more disadvantaged are also having more flaring located in them. So that’s another – you know, some of the environmental justice issues, which is a whole nother topic, are there too. And so that’s Jill Johnston, and she’s at University of Southern California. Those aren’t in my bibliography, but that would be a place to go to look for those.

Is California the only state using produced water on crops? And is California the only state that has convened a scientific panel to evaluate the risks?


RICK WEISS: Great. A question from Liza Gross from the Food and Environment Reporting Network for Seth Shonkoff – you said use of oil-produced water on crops is relatively rare, though I’ve heard it’s been used in other states. Is that correct? And if so, is California the only state that’s convened a scientific panel to evaluate risks from using oil-produced water on crops?

SETH SHONKOFF: Yeah. So I guess I should define what I meant by rare – so rare being a proportion of produced water that is managed in that way. So the majority of produced water is reinjected into the subsurface either for disposal or back into oil and gas production wells to facilitate more oil and gas production. And then there are these categories of other, which fall into the reuse category. Some go into unlined percolation pits, depending on the state, which recharges aquifers that lay below, which is a topic of another conversation. And then there’s the reuse of produced water for irrigation. Now, there is some indication that there’s produced water being used to irrigate crops such as alfalfa for livestock production in – livestock feed, I should say, in Colorado. And there’s only anecdotal evidence that I’ve heard with respect to any sort of irrigation practices per se in the state of Wyoming. And I’m trying to remember the second part of the question, Rick, if you…

RICK WEISS: Any other states that have convened scientific panels to look at this.

SETH SHONKOFF: Right. So as – you know, as I mentioned in one of my answers before, the state of California – the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is a regional water regulator under the State Water Board of California, convened a food safety expert panel, of which I’m a member, to look at the scientific dimensions of this issue and study it and interpret data and make science-policy-relevant recommendations on where we are and, you know, what we should expect in the future. To my knowledge, that is the only bona fide food safety expert panel focused on this issue, at least convened by any sort of public agency. I can’t speak to whether there have been, you know, expert panels formed by research groups, universities or other entities.

How is pollution from oil and gas extraction affecting wildlife?


RICK WEISS: Got it. Question for Lisa from Kathiann Kowalski, Energy News Network. In Ohio, a court recently ruled that the federal government hadn’t considered all factors before giving a green light for unconventional oil and gas leasing and drilling in a national forest in the state. Are the kinds of things we’ve been seeing in terms of impacts on residents things where you might also be concerned about having impacts on wildlife, albeit at different levels perhaps?

LISA MCKENZIE: So the biggest difference, I think, between humans and wildlife are the exposures. So the, you know, wildlife might be out there actually drinking the produced water, where that’s unlikely in a human population. So the impacts might be different. There are a couple studies out of Canada – and I can’t remember the name of the research team; Dr. Shonkoff may be able to remember – but where they have seen effects in calves, so both aborted calves and some anomalies at birth. There were two studies. They were done, oh, probably about eight years ago now up in Canada. Those are the only real studies on animals that I know have – know of. But I think the major difference is in the exposures. So it’s very difficult to control what wildlife is doing, and they could be right on the well paths.

Does hydraulic fracturing contribute to earthquakes?


RICK WEISS: I have a question here from Saul Chernos, freelance reporter. I’m not sure who this might go to, but what is the current status of earthquakes in Pennsylvania, et cetera? Has there been any attribution to hydraulic fracturing? Any of you want to address the sort of geology here?

SETH BLUMSACK: So I – this is not my area of expertise, but the Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research at Penn State actually has deployed a network of seismic sensors in – I think mostly in western Pennsylvania, but maybe some in north central Pennsylvania as well. And so – and I believe the data from that network is publicly available. So I – and if, you know, you’re having trouble finding the information or would like to get connected to those folks, I’d be happy to facilitate that. But I don’t know the answer off the top of my head.

RICK WEISS: That’s a great resource. Some of us at SciLine visited there a while ago, so good one for reporters to know about. Anyone else want to contribute to that?

SETH SHONKOFF: Well, I – this is also – I’m not a seismologist, and I don’t pretend to be one, but I know a little bit about this, and I do know that the majority of induced seismicity that has been observed, at least in the peer-reviewed literature – peer-reviewed scientific literature, is induced by the injection of produced water into underground injection control wells and not necessarily from the injection of water resources into hydraulically fractured wells, although that argument doesn’t hold true everywhere. And there have – there are studies in Ohio, I believe in Oklahoma and in California that suggest that other forms – other processes of injecting fluids into the subsurface can induce seismicity. And in response to this, being that, you know, I will never be a seismologist and I’m not a wildlife biologist, but there are resources to keep an eye on. I’d just like to mention that we have a study database on our website at It’s called the Repository of Oil and Gas Energy Research, or ROGER. And here is a near-exhaustive database of the peer-reviewed literature on many topics of unconventional oil and gas development, ranging from health to wildlife to water, air, induced seismicity, et cetera. So feel free to go and check that out, and you should be able to see nearly everything published on this topic.

What are the key takeaways for reporters covering oil and gas extraction in their communities?


RICK WEISS: Great. And it’s a good chance for me to remind the reporters here that we will be posting, along with the transcript and video of this briefing, additional resources that these speakers have contributed for your use afterwards. I want to take the last just two or three minutes or two minutes to quickly just go around the horn and give each speaker a chance to, for 30 seconds, provide a take-home message or reiterate something. If there’s one thing you want reporters here to walk away with, what would it be? And I’ll start with you, Dr. Lisa McKenzie.

LISA MCKENZIE: OK. So what I would close with is that we know that more than 17 million Americans may be impacted by oil and gas development near their homes. We know that this – these operations emit air pollutants that can harm health. And the health studies that have been done to date indicate that this is a particular risk for infants in an early life.

RICK WEISS: Thank you. And Dr. Seth Shonkoff.

SETH SHONKOFF: Yeah. If there are – if there’s, you know, a key nugget to take home on the water – produced water reuse side, I’d just reiterate that produced water is known to have a whole variety of health-damaging chemical constituents, that produced water is not a singular thing and that there’s significant variability across geographic, geologic and corporate space, and the expansion of produced water reuse in the absence of appropriate water quality monitoring and treatment train technologies is, in my view and in the view of many others in the field, somewhat premature. Thank you.

RICK WEISS: Thanks. And Dr. Blumsack.

SETH BLUMSACK: So economically, unconventional oil and gas activity brings a lot of economic benefits. It also imposes economic costs on the communities that are hosting these activities, and it does create winners and losers, like a lot of other industrial activity. The – overall, I think the thing that it’s very important to remember is that, you know, when you see reports or data or studies that associate very rapid economic growth or wealth creation with these activities, that these periods of economic growth are – have almost always been associated with a kind of, you know, rapid capital spend and rapid ramp-up in drilling and other kinds of capital-intensive activities. And in fewer cases that – there are fewer areas that have been able to sustain that level of economic development over a longer time period. So, you know, the boom and bust cycle has not gone away.

RICK WEISS: Thanks. I want to thank all of our speakers. And I want to remind all the reporters who are logged in right now of two things. One, when you log off, you will get a prompt for a very short three-question survey that – I know everyone’s tired of surveys, but it’s very helpful for us. If you would take the half a minute or minute it’ll take to answer these three questions, it’ll really help us keep these media briefings in line with ways that are most helpful to you. So we really appreciate your feedback if you would take a moment on that.

And I also want to remind the reporters on board, as I mentioned at the beginning, that SciLine will be hosting a special media briefing on Thursday at 2 o’clock specifically about covering the COVID-19 pandemic with some helpful tips for how to stay on top of this story and pitfalls to avoid, featuring two very experienced national reporters who have been on the case, in some cases for years on similar cases, and the executive director of the American Public Health Association to provide some perspective from the top of the public health community. So we encourage you to register on our website or click on a link that you will see, I believe, as you shut down this briefing today. And with that, please do follow SciLine on Twitter – @RealSciLine – and check out our website. I want to thank our speakers again. And thank you all for attending today’s SciLine media briefing.

Dr. Seth Blumsack

Penn State University

Dr. Seth Blumsack is Professor of Energy Policy and Economics and International Affairs and Associate Department Head in the John and Willie Leone Family Department of Energy and Mineral Engineering at The Pennsylvania State University. At Penn State he also directs the Center for Energy Law and Policy; serves as a faculty member in the Operations Research program; and is Co-Director of the Penn State Energy and Environmental Economics and Policy Initiative. Dr. Blumsack’s research centers on the electricity and natural gas industries; environmental management related to energy and infrastructure; regulation and deregulation in network industries; network science; risk analysis; and managing complex infrastructure systems.

Dr. Lisa McKenzie

University of Colorado Denver

Dr. Lisa McKenzie is an Assistant Professor at the Colorado School of Public Health (Colorado SPH) in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health on the University of Colorado Denver’s Anschutz Medical Campus. Dr. McKenzie research has contributed to the understanding of how exposures resulting from the development of petroleum resources affects the public’s health. Her studies are among the first risk assessments and epidemiological studies on this topic to appear in the published literature.

Dr. Seth Shonkoff

PSE Healthy Energy and University of California Berkeley

Dr. Seth Shonkoff is the executive director of the energy science and policy institute, PSE Healthy Energy. Dr. Shonkoff is also a visiting scholar in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley and an affiliate in the Environment Energy Technology Division at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California. He has worked and published on topics related to the intersection of energy, air pollution, water quality, climate, and human health from scientific and policy perspectives. Dr. Shonkoff has co-authored multiple high-profile scientific assessments including the Human Health chapter of The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5), two human health chapters in the California Senate Bill 4 independent scientific study on hydraulic fracturing and well stimulation; and an assessment of the public health dimensions of underground gas storage in the State of California.

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