Air Pollution from Oil Wells is real–and you may not even realize how close they are!

I live in a geologically rich state, Mississippi.  Rich for those with mineral rights…and not so rich for those who get to smell their hydrocarbons, sometimes on a weekly basis!  At least several times a month, I wake up to a pungent, rotten egg smell in my house that I recognize immediately from having previously worked in refineries (hydrogen sulfide)…except there are no refineries near me.  One day I decided to find out where the rotten eggs were. 

There are a number of online maps that will show you where active and inactive oil gas wells are.  Some maps give more info than others, and I found that my state has a pretty good one, listing the operators, what type of well (dry hole, oil production, injection or disposal) and data on the well.  I found one dry well less than a mile away.  The field in production closest to me (3 miles away) has 61 wells, 35 of which are in oil production, the remaining mostly dry holes and some disposal. Another one that is 6 miles away has 59 wells, 41 of which are in production, with the remaining as disposals, dry holes and a few injections.  I want to find out which one is throwing the eggs!  It turns out, it may not even be the ones that are in production.  According to Reuters, millions of abandoned (no longer in production) oil wells in the US are leaking methane and other toxic gasses like hydrogen sulfide. Some have been around since the late 1800’s!

SO….it’s not just the rotten eggs that concern me: they seem to go away within several hours.  What about the odorless gasses?  Yes, according to this summary of a study from California, researchers found increased air pollution within 2.5 miles of an oil or gas well, such as PM2.5 (toxic particulate matter), carbon monoxide, nitrous oxide, ozone and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  When a new well is being drilled or reaches 100 barrels of oil production per day, PM2.5 increases by approximately 2 micrograms per cubic meter one mile from the site.  This “small” uptick can be significant, however, because oil wells can remain in production for decades, and a different study concluded that even an increase of one microgram of PM2.5 per cubic meter, increases the risk of death by COVID-19 by 11 percent.  Air pollution becomes worse and more widespread on windy days, which is how I figure I am smelling hydrocarbons from a well 3 or more miles away.  Thankfully I live upwind most days (the pollutants of wells flow away from me most of the time).  And thankfully, I am not surrounded by wells like the residents of southern Los Angeles or those along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. 

A study from Harvard released in January 2022 links increased mortality rate for people aged 65 and over to living close to “unconventional oil and gas drilling” operations, or UOGD.  UOGD includes directional (non-vertical) drilling and  “fracking”, or hydraulic fracturing, which is the injection of high-pressure liquid and materials to fracture shale and stimulate oil and gas production (ipaa.org).  The results point to air pollution from the wells causing the increased mortality, although there are hardly any air quality  monitoring stations near the wells. 

In order to confirm what your nose (or sadly, your overall health) is telling you, you can start monitoring and logging indoor and outdoor quality.  Of course, with indoor measurements you’ll want to note what air purification systems you have running (HEPA filter, air purifier, etc.).  Keep a journal or computer log (the device you use may keep records for you) and also note weather conditions, so that wind, temperature, humidity, precipitation, etc. can be referenced along with the air quality.  You’ll want a sensor that measures VOC and PM2.5 levels, and this unit is a great budget-friendly option to get started!  You can easily travel with it too.

For persistent indoor air quality problems due to oil well emissions, you’ll want to get a HEPA filter for PM2.5.  Depending on the model, the unit may also handle VOCs if it has activated carbon in the filter.  The Air Angel helps in both of these areas because it has polar ionization and AHPCO technology, but pairing it with a stand-alone HEPA filter is recommended.  Check out our post on portable HEPA filters for recommendations!

Who can help us get something done about wellhead emissions?  There are rules of law for well emissions (example), however without the know-how, technical equipment, or access to the well to measure air quality, it’s hard to know whether a well is in violation.  Also, there are many abandoned wellheads, for which it is hard to get anyone to take responsibility in many cases.  So, it’s best to start by trying to contact someone locally, and work your way up.  Start with your city or county representative, as often these officials are aware of problems and resources.  Typically, individual states are responsible for cleaning/managing their own wells, unless there are wells on federal or tribal land, which is managed by the federal government.  Your state may or may not be easy to contact with air quality problems, but give it a try!  For example, Mississippi is not excessively progressive because it only has a couple addresses and fax numbers listed for air quality complaints.  Some states with high drilling activity have started their own “orphaned well” programs, and this 2021 report summarizes the efforts of reporting states to register and close orphan wells.  It has a lot of information about states agencies and websites.  The EPA, also, has an email form you can use.  

Air is one thing that is free, but free doesn’t always mean good.  We urge you to persist in making your indoor and outdoor air as good as it can be!