Our Patients Need Us to Stand Up to Big Oil

Lisa Patel, MD, MESc
Lisa Patel, MD, MESc
8 Min Read

Welcome to Climate Checkup, a new MedPage Today column on climate change and well-being, authored by experts affiliated with the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health. For the inaugural op-ed, Lisa Patel, MD, MESc, dives into an ongoing regulatory battle in California over the siting of oil and gas wells. According to Patel, the situation emphasizes a common theme in the fossil fuel industry: acting without any real regard for the impact of their actions on public health.

For health professionals, industry misinformation that protects profits over public health is nothing new. We watched the tobacco industry do this with great success, casting doubt on scientific studies pointing to tobacco’s health harms until successful lawsuits, public health campaigns, and a Surgeon General’s warning helped to erode its social license.

The fossil fuel industry has long been engaged in a similar campaign with perhaps even more catastrophic results for our health. For decades, the industry has hidden the results of their findings that the burning of fossil fuels would cause dangerous global warming, mislead the public on climate science, and spend hundreds of millions of dollars blocking climate change policies. Today, fossil fuel pollution results in more premature deaths per year than tobacco — 1 in 5 deaths worldwide — and climate change is widely considered the greatest threat to public health in the 21st century.

Concerned citizens, community groups, and health professionals have been uniting across the country to protect their loved ones and patients from these impacts. Fossil fuels are a health risk to all of us, but the impacts are particularly severe for those living near sites of oil and gas extraction. A recent saga in California paints a clear picture of just how determined the industry is to evade accountability, protect its profits, and thereby perpetuate health harms in vulnerable and marginalized communities.

Approximately 2.1 million people in California live within 2,500 feet of an oil or gas well, and the wells are often close to homes, schools, parks, and playgrounds. From 2015 through 2020, California issued more than 25,000 permits for new oil drills or re-drilling old sites. Approximately 60% of these permits were in areas with a large Spanish-speaking population. There is now mounting evidence that living in close proximity to an oil drilling operation is dangerous for health, including a heightened risk for adverse birth outcomes and certain types of congenital heart disease, certain forms of cancer including a risk of childhood leukemia, and an elevated risk of all-cause mortality in the elderly.

Last year, in a significant win for public health, California responded to the work of environmental justice organizations, community organizers, and health advocates, and banned new permits for oil and gas wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, clinics, hospitals, and other sensitive sites. This was a particularly critical step because California, widely considered a leader on climate policy, had never regulated setbacks (the distance required between the wells and other protected sites and buildings).

Days after the win, the oil industry quietly filed a referendum to reverse these protections and spent the following months investing a staggering $20 million to ensure the referendum would qualify for the 2024 ballot. Wouldn’t that $20 million have been better spent on upgraded air filtration systems for the schools near these polluting facilities to prevent children from breathing in toxic pollution while their lungs are still in a phase of rapid and vulnerable development?

Instead, this $20 million was spent on a well-documented campaign of deceit. In addition to confusing residents about what setbacks actually require, they told residents the law would result in gas prices of $10 per gallon (it won’t) and that it would shut down all oil operations in California (it wouldn’t). The law simply prohibits new drilling next to “sensitive receptors” (like hospitals, schools, playgrounds) rather than phasing out existing oil wells — a disappointment for the environmental justice community that organized to better protect their residents, but a positive step forward in protecting the health of Californians.

California is considered ground zero for battles that are looming in other states. If the industry referendum is successful in California, that could mean that the oil and gas industry will start pouring money into other states to prevent the passage or strengthening of setbacks and other critical policies throughout the country.

The “health voice” is one of the most powerful tools we have to counteract this type of disinformation: health professionals like doctors and nurses remain one of the most trusted voices on climate change and fossil fuels, particularly among conservatives who are more likely to support fossil fuel projects. The health voice has helped ban fracking in New York State and just last month countered powerful oil and gas interests in passing building electrification codes in Washington that will move the state off fossil gas.

Naysayers will point out that the comparison between Big Oil and Big Tobacco is not entirely valid. Tobacco has never served a purpose other than to ruin health, while oil and gas are critical to powering our cars, our homes, our businesses, and our hospitals. This argument may have held water in decades past, but no longer. Thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, transitioning to wind and solar is well underway, promising a future of energy that is renewable, non-polluting, and non-extractive. We should do our all as health professionals to promote these cleaner alternatives.

It’s time we took on Big Oil’s campaigns of obstruction and misinformation that inflict health harms on all of us, but particularly on vulnerable and marginalized communities. Health professionals and health systems should speak out against fossil fuel industry efforts that intentionally put profits first, inevitably placing communities in harm’s way. That means joining coalition efforts to counter the tens of millions of dollars Big Oil will spend to protect its profits and meeting with elected lawmakers to connect the dots between the fossil fuel industry and health.

A world where everyone can breathe clean air and future generations can thrive on a healthy planet is within our reach. Health professionals can help us get there by ensuring we hold Big Oil to account.

Lisa Patel, MD, MESc, is the executive director of the Medical Society Consortium on Climate & Health, and a practicing pediatric hospitalist in California.

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