Pregnant women living near high volumes of oil and natural gas flaring are 50% more likely to experience premature births than those with no exposure, according to a recent analysis of births in the South Texas Eagle Ford Shale.
Researchers at the University of Southern California and San Francisco State University examined nearly 25,000 live births among women who lived in the region between 2012 — 2015 as part of the study, which was published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal last week.
The research team classified high volumes of flaring as 10 or more nightly flare events within three miles of a pregnant woman’s home.
Jill Johnson, an assistant professor of preventive medicine at the University of Southern California, said the “strength” of the impact they found was more than she anticipated.
Johnson co-authored the study, which she said partially stemmed from watching the fracking boom unfold while living in San Antonio.
“We identified a very significant and very strong effect that flaring appears to be having on preterm birth in this region and we see this flaring having an effect independent of oil drilling and any kind of fracking, which suggests that there is additional harm happening from flaring in the community,” she said.
Stretching 50 miles wide and 400 miles long, the Eagle Ford Shale geological formation is of the most productive oil and gas areas in the country.
The burning off of excess gas at natural gas and oil wells drastically increased during the past decade as a result of the hydraulic fracking boom. Without the ability to get all gas to the market to sell, companies are allowed to burn off excess.
The research team estimated the Eagle Ford Shale was home to more than 43,000 flaring events between 2012 to 2016 in a study published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal last year. That study identified DeWitt County as one of the top five counties for flaring in the Eagle Ford Shale.
The Texas Railroad Commission allows operators to flare gas while drilling a well and up to 10 days after a well is completed. The commission issues flare permits for 45 days at a time with a maximum 180-day limit.
About 14% of the births among mothers who lived near high volumes of flaring were preterm, according to the study. That figure is higher than the preterm birth rate researchers identified for mothers who were not exposed to flaring, which was 8.8%.
The study excluded women in cities with populations of 74,000 or more and adjusted for oil and gas production sites without high rates of flaring, as well as preterm risk factors such as smoking, healthcare access and age.
Researchers found that Latino or Hispanic women who were exposed to flaring had higher preterm birth rates than Hispanic or Latino woman who were not exposed.
Johnson said they were not able to “disentangle” the cause or reasoning of the stronger effect they found flaring to have on Hispanic or Latino women.
“This may be due just to the legacy of discrimination and other socioeconomic stressors that impact the body’s defenses and make them more vulnerable,” she said.
Because much of the region is low income and about 50% of residents living within 5 km of an oil or gas well are people of color, there are environmental justice concerns about the potential health impacts of the oil and gas boom in South Texas, the researchers said.
In a statement, Todd Staples, president of the Texas Oil & Gas Association and member of the Texas Methane & Flaring Coalition, said he found the study to be errorus.
The Texas Methane & Flaring Coalition was established last March to develop industry-led solutions for issues of methane emissions and flaring.
“This study uses a flawed methodology and the authors themselves acknowledge that their findings are not conclusive,” he said by email. “The authors used proximity as a surrogate for exposure to make unsubstantiated claims about the oil and natural gas industry to the detriment of every person who needs affordable and reliable energy.”
As far as the research team could tell, their study is the first specifically focused on the effects flaring from oil and gas extraction can have on human health.
“When the fracking boom happened, we saw research coming out of mostly Colorado and Pennsylvania, but there is not nearly as much flaring there as other places, so that could be why there was not as much focus on flaring in specific,” Johnson said.
Flaring is particularly hard to study because it tends to occur in rural areas and be “very under regulated,” and there are not permit records or other data that is easily accessible to better understand when and where flaring is happening, she said.
In June, the Texas Railroad Commission met with the state’s oil and gas trade associations, environmental advocacy groups and oil and gas producers to discuss the issue of flaring.
After hearing testimony, Wayne Christian, chairman of the commission, asked the staff to develop a plan of action to address flaring in the fall, according to a news release from the regulatory agency.
“I am very concerned by the rate of flaring in Texas,” he said. “We cannot continue to waste this much natural gas and allow the practice of flaring to tarnish the reputation of our state’s thriving energy sector to the general public and investors on Wall Street.”
Researchers concluded that the health impacts of flaring warrant additional study and their findings “require replication in other publications.”
Johnson said she hopes their findings “prompt considerations of different inventions or policies” that can be used to try to reduce the amount of flaring happening and better protect public health.