Zach Toombs is a producer for “Blowout,” a Newsy documentary on the American fossil fuel boom and its global impacts now streaming on Amazon Prime Video and the Newsy app on Roku and Fire TV.
We started in the dusty oil fields of West Texas and ended in the smog-filled streets of New Delhi. The path we had followed led us to refinery towns on the Amerian Gulf Coast, through the Panama Canal packed with tanker traffic, and to a remote port in southwest India. This is the path of American oil and gas — at least, one of them. And this surge in exports is reshaping energy infrastructure around the world, building out new ports and pipelines for fossil fuel use decades into the future, just as scientists are urging a rapid shift to renewable energy to offset the worst effects of climate change.
Our crew covered this path of American fossil fuels across three continents and more than 8,000 miles for the Newsy documentary, “Blowout.” Today, the U.S. is the undisputed global kingpin of oil and gas production and exports. But up until a few years ago, it wasn’t even in the game.
For four decades, a ban on crude oil exports made American consumers the priority for American fuel. That changed in 2015, when the Obama administration, looking to capitalize on abundant natural gas unlocked by new drilling technology, repealed the ban and jump-started a new flow of fossil fuel from the U.S. to foreign markets, particularly in Asia. Now, the Trump administration has taken that flow to new levels, making a hard push to sell oil and — natural gas, especially — to Asia and Europe.
Following this new international route of American fossil fuel turned up some stories we expected. A climate story of warmer oceans, higher seas and more powerful storms. An economics story of higher profits for the companies exporting oil and gas, and more money coming into industry towns like Midland, Texas.
But one story along this route has gotten very little attention: the public health impact on Americans at home in the race to feed growing demand abroad. In the last decade, new technology and drilling methods have created what the industry calls “The Shale Revolution.” It has brought more oil and gas production into more residential areas, and this boom has a health effect that researchers and scientists say we’re only beginning to understand.
On the plains that stretch east of the Rocky Mountains, a drilling frenzy has broken out over the last 10 years. Here, atmospheric scientist Gaby Petron and her team of researchers patrol the oil fields in a van outfitted with bizarre-looking instruments, on the hunt for rogue emissions of benzene and other air toxics emitted from active oil and gas wells that can have serious health consequences for people living nearby. The air samples collected here will go back for analysis in Petron’s lab at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, or NOAA, facility in Boulder.
“We are like detectives,” Petron says in her slight French accent. “We drive around the oil and gas field and we are looking at real-time readings of benzene. And when we see very big hits, we investigate and look at what’s upwind of us. And that will tell us where there’s a source of benzene.”
As we drive by another fracking operation, the line on one of several monitors in the van spikes. Here, within a few hundred feet of the production site, and with two houses between us, levels of benzene in the air are higher than they should be. That’s not a rare find.
“We noticed that there’s a lot of benzene over the oil and gas field that’s not accounted for in the state inventory,” Petron says. “Benzene is a known carcinogen. Some of the other gases can be irritants to the lungs or the eyes and the throat.”
The data the NOAA collects in the field has helped scientists like Dr. Lisa McKenzie shed light on the health consequences of more drilling and more emissions edging further into residential areas as drilling across the U.S. surges to meet demand overseas.
“The data on the health effects of benzene in human populations is pretty clear,” Dr. McKenzie told me on her campus at the Colorado School of Public Health. “What we found was that people living closest to the well sites and within 500 feet of the well sites had a higher risk for chronic and acute health effects. Respiratory effects and neurological effects are the main health effects that we would expect to be associated with these air pollutants. And their cancer risk was eight times EPA’s upper threshold for cancer risk.”
Turns out, a lot of people do live within this 500-foot high-risk zone: An estimated 1.4 million Americans, based on an analysis of drilling and population records conducted by Newsy data reporters Rosie Cima and Mark Fahey.
Across Denver and its suburbs, where new drills regularly pop up within subdivisions, we talked to families living near active oil and gas wells, like the Maciula family, who tested their children’s blood and found elevated air toxics, and the Larson family, whose daughter developed Acute Myeloid Leukemia, a cancer rare in young women that can be caused by exposure to benzene. Both families have since moved.
The Obama administration might have opened the door for this new American fossil fuel era, but the Trump administration has taken it to the extreme. U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has traveled the globe to pitch U.S. natural gas and has found success in China, South Korea, India and parts of Europe. That’s meant a windfall of profits for the few companies capable of exporting natural gas globally. One such company is Cheniere Energy, whose majority stakeholder, Carl Icahn, served as an energy adviser for President Trump early in his administration.
The pitch for natural gas is that it’s clean and affordable, but there’s an inherent contradiction there. For emerging economies like India — where I spoke to Narendra Taneja, energy adviser for the nation’s governing BJP Party — natural gas is an attractive, cost-efficient alternative to coal. As we sat near a busy intersection, Taneja pointed out the three-wheeler taxis and city buses — all running on imported natural gas. India’s appetite for affordable energy is growing rapidly these days, so while the government lays out an ambitious solar energy plan and stays loyal to the Paris Climate Accords, it’s also taking in loads of natural gas. Taneja took note of the contradiction.
“When I say that I’m disappointed with what the U.S. is doing — in terms of pulling out of the climate deal, or shale gas contaminating air, water, earth and everything — at the same time the fact that the U.S. is able to produce more oil, more natural gas is good for us,” Taneja told me. “It’s good for emerging economies like India. But at the same time in terms of emissions and all that, it’s bad. There is no black and white answer.”
This contradiction runs through the heart of the U.S. natural gas push. Although it’s marketed as the “clean” fossil fuel, free of the baggage of heavy carbon emissions, natural gas emits its own powerful greenhouse gas: methane.
Methane only makes up about one-tenth of global greenhouse gases, but it’s 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide at trapping heat. A 2018 study showed methane leaks from natural gas production at levels 60% higher than U.S. government estimates.
Returning from her emission-hunting van to her homebase NOAA lab in Boulder, Colorado, Gaby Petron is studying the effects of methane and carbon emissions on the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s not pretty.
“Since pre-industrial times, CO2 levels have increased in the atmosphere by almost 50%. When you look at methane it’s even a bigger increase. We’ve gone from less than a ppm to around 2 ppm methane nowadays,” Petron says. “The levels we are seeing now, especially in terms of CO2, have not been seen since 3.6 million years ago. And we can say that about three-quarters of the climate change we are experiencing today and will experience can be attributed to an energy system that is reliant on fossil energy.”
In our mission to follow the full path of U.S. oil and gas, we saw the result of warmer oceans firsthand: in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh where millions of climate refugees have fled to escape rising seas on the coast, and back in the U.S., where we saw the aftermath of Hurricane Michael’s tear across the southeast that killed dozens and caused $25 billion in damages.
The scientists we spoke to who are studying this new American fossil fuel era and its impacts on the planet had no qualms tying the two together.
“There’s a wakeup call that needs to happen,” Petron said from NOAA’s lab in Boulder. “The energy system that has brought us to where we are today, that has given us a lot of improvements to our quality of life is probably not the system we want to rely on to make sure that our kids and our grandkids have a planet they can live in down the road and for the generations to come.”