A new study published this week in the peer-reviewed “Environmental Research: Health” found that polluting emissions from oil and gas production were responsible for 7,500 premature deaths in the United States in 2022, 410,000 asthma attacks, and 2,200 additional cases of child asthma. Besides the deaths, the emissions also had other impacts, from heart attacks to birth defects and pregnancy complications, for a tally of $77 million in health damages.
Mind you, that’s not from burning fossil fuels. It is just for extracting and making them ready to burn. These processes also create methane emissions in the form of leaks and intentional venting; methane can help contribute to the formation of fine particulate matter (PM2.5, also known as soot) and ozone. The study was based on 2016 data because that was all that was available when the research began. Given the rise in production, the number of premature deaths and health impacts may be greater.
Whatever the case, while these production deaths are nothing to shrug off, burning the extracted fuels is what takes the far heavier toll. The seventh annual “2022 Lancet Countdown on Health and Climate Change” reported that there were 1.2 million premature deaths worldwide in 2021 just from airborne particulates alone, 11,800 of those in the United States.
Changes in climate from this burning boosted heatwave-related deaths worldwide by 68% in vulnerable populations (adults over 65, and infants up to 1), and 74% in the United States, according to the report. Agricultural workers were among the most affected. Besides the deaths, the doctors calculated that heatwaves meant the loss of 470 billion hours of work in 2021. That’s about 40% more than in the 1990s. The associated economic loss was estimated at about $700 billion. Compared with the 1950s, some 30% more land is now affected by extreme drought events. The Lancet Countdown noted:
[O]il and gas companies are registering record profits, while their production strategies continue to undermine people’s lives and well-being. An analysis of the production strategies of 15 of the world’s largest oil and gas companies, as of February 2022, revealed they exceed their share of emissions consistent with 1·5°C [2.7°F] of global heating by 37% in 2030 and 103% in 2040, continuing to undermine efforts to deliver a low-carbon, healthy, liveable future.
And, according to a 2021 study by researchers at Harvard and three British universities, 8.7 million people died because of burning fossil fuels in 2018, the latest year for which the researchers had full data. That’s double the World Health Organization’s 2017 estimate of deaths caused by air pollution. And it is 1 of every 5 people who died worldwide.
"There's a perception in the United States that we have this under control, but that's a mistake," Joel Schwartz, a Harvard professor and one of the study's authors, told the Boston Globe. The annual U.S. death toll from fossil fuel-caused air pollution: 350,000. Eloise Marais, a geographer at University College London and a study co-author, told The Guardian, "We were initially very hesitant when we obtained the results because they are astounding, but we are discovering more and more about the impact of this pollution. It's pervasive."
Said University College of London health and climate researcher Dr. Marina Romanello, executive director of the Lancet Countdown, “Our health is at the mercy of fossil fuels. We’re seeing a persistent addiction to fossil fuels that is not only amplifying the health impacts of climate change, but which is also now at this point compounding with other concurrent crises that we’re globally facing, including the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the cost-of-living crisis, energy crisis and food crisis that were triggered after the war in Ukraine.”
As Bill McKibben points out, however, the culprit isn’t humans in general: “It’s Big Oil that’s addicted to fossil fuel profits—but the side effects are killing the planet.”
Big Oil is addicted to something else as well: lying. They’ve stopped outright denial of the climate crisis. Now their advertising and press releases are all about how supposedly green they are. By their actions, not their words, shall we know them.