One in five Californians lived within one kilometer of a plugged or abandoned oil and gas well in 2015–2019, potentially exposing them to pollution linked with respiratory problems, adverse birth outcomes, and a variety of other health problems.
In a peer-reviewed study, researchers from the University of California, Berkeley and PSE Healthy Energy evaluated whether certain racial and socioeconomic groups are more likely to live in close proximity to oil and gas operations.
Black, Hispanic, and socioeconomically marginalized people persistently experience disproportionately high exposure to oil and gas development in California. Nearly nine million Californians (22.9%) live within one kilometer of a plugged oil and gas well and over one million Californians live near active or retired wells, with similar racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic disparities observed across all well types.
The proportion of Black residents near active wells was 42–49% higher than the proportion of Black residents across California, and the proportion of Hispanic residents near active wells was 4–13% higher than their statewide proportion. Disparities were greatest in areas with the highest oil and gas production, where the proportion of Black residents was 105–139% higher than statewide. Socioeconomically marginalized residents also had disproportionately high exposure to wells.
Despite a decline in California’s oil and gas production, marginalized communities continue to experience disproportionately high exposure to oil and gas wells and associated infrastructure. Given the substantial scientific evidence that exposure to oil and gas development is associated with a range of adverse health outcomes, disparities in exposure may contribute to previously reported health disparities.
Possible mechanisms leading to observed disparities in exposure to oil and gas development and associated health outcomes, are related to regulatory and land-use decision-making processes that are complex and involve multiple stakeholders. Future state policy should address these environmental health disparities.