By Morgan King
Born and raised in Kanawha County, I’ve spent most of my life near the Kanawha River. Growing up, I witnessed extractive resources move through the area on our waterways and railroads. I would count passing train cars piled high with coal and tanks filled with oil and watch barges filled with more of the same extractive resources move sluggishly along the river.
Observing these transport systems for the raw materials essential to our energy economy in West Virginia was a part of daily life. In college and graduate school, I learned how extraction affects our air and water while contributing to the climate emergency.
When we discuss climate change causes, carbon dioxide understandably dominates the conversation. But, at over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide at trapping heat within the first 20 years in the atmosphere, methane plays a dangerous role as the second most abundant greenhouse gas. Methane is estimated to cause 20 percent of global emissions and 25 percent of the global warming we’ve seen to date.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the largest sources in the United States are oil and gas systems (32 percent) and enteric fermentation by livestock (27 percent). Yet, research by the Environmental Defense Fund revealed emissions from oil and gas production to be 60 percent higher than EPA’s estimate.
It’s clear – cutting methane pollution from the oil and gas industry is the fastest way to address climate in the near-term. Limiting global warming is lifesaving for communities bearing the brunt of climate impacts, like severe flooding which West Virginians know well.
Beyond climate, methane emissions from oil and gas jeopardize the health of workers and communities closest to development. Volatile Organic Compounds, or VOCs, are released alongside methane during operations. VOCs worsen respiratory diseases and increase the risk of cancer and cardiovascular diseases. Nitrogen oxides produced by gas flaring and engines at natural gas facilities react with sunlight, methane, and VOC pollution to form ozone. This smog impairs lung function, triggers asthma attacks, and aggravates diseases like bronchitis and emphysema putting children, the elderly, and people with respiratory conditions at highest risk.
Climate change exacerbates weather conditions, like hotter temperatures and stagnant air, that intensify the ozone smog levels. So, methane pollution creates a feedback loop–more emissions increase global warming and health risks.
Worse still, proximity to oil and gas development exacerbates existing public health crises. West Virginia ranks highest nationally for prevalence of heart attack and coronary heart disease, has the second highest cancer mortality rate, and is among the worst ranked for chronic respiratory disease making West Virginians vulnerable to these pollutants.
More than 17.3 million people live within a half mile of active oil and gas production operations nationwide. Many active and abandoned oil and gas wells in West Virginia put our neighbors at risk. Over half of West Virginians live within a mile of an active well, and there are 6,500 abandoned and orphaned wells leaking methane statewide.
Low-producing wells are unique perpetrators of methane pollution in the country, making up eight in ten of all wells, producing just six percent of our oil and gas, and causing half of all well-site pollution. Appalachia has the highest number of low-producing wells and experiences the most methane pollution from these wells in the country. My home of Kanawha County has 3,303 of these low-producing but high-emitting wells, the highest in the state.
While this sounds grim, there is good news. Last November, EPA proposed an updated rule to address methane emissions and toxic pollution from large and leak-prone small well sites, along with inspections of abandoned wells until closure.
The proposal is a common-sense solution for the oil and gas industry. Plugging leaks and reducing emissions are cost-effective, helping the bottom line of operators, while creating thousands of jobs nationwide. The value of gas wasted each year in the country from leaks at low-producing wells is $1.3 billion, enough to run 3.6 million homes for a year.
Whereas Appalachia and West Virginia are most affected by low-producing and abandoned oil and gas wells, the region stands to see more job creation and better health outcomes by embracing EPA’s methane rule.
Morgan King is the climate campaign coordinator for West Virginia Rivers.