Most research into the environmental and social impacts of the oil and natural gas industries focuses on the beginning and end of the process: where resources are extracted and where they are refined and consumed. Very little attention, however, is paid to middle infrastructure—the enormous vascular system of pipelines crisscrossing the United States. In a new study, Emanuel et al. address this continent-wide gap by comparing natural gas pipeline density to social vulnerability at the county level.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has created a social vulnerability index that measures how well a community can prepare for, handle, and recover from hazards and disasters, either natural or human-caused. A county with high social vulnerability would be poorly equipped to handle a potential pipeline disaster. The researchers found that more socially vulnerable counties in the United States tended to have higher pipeline densities, while less socially vulnerable counties had lower pipeline densities. The correlation is stronger for counties with the highest pipeline densities.
The authors point to the policy implications of the inequitable distribution of environmental harms connected with the construction and operation of this vast network of infrastructure. The burdens of pipelines—including noise, reduced property values and land use options, risk of leak or explosion, and cultural harm—fall disproportionately on the communities least capable of handling them.
Pipelines are frequently located in rural areas rather than urban ones. Although rural areas have lower population densities and many times presumed “lower risks,” rural routes do not diffuse risks; they present a different set of risks, the authors say. Plus, the scientists highlight that Indigenous people rooted in rural areas have deep cultural ties to specific landscapes and waterways that are increasingly affected by pipeline construction and operation, and their cultures and communities may be harmed if the land is marred. Rural emergency response systems have fewer resources to handle large disasters. Further, local conflict over fossil fuel infrastructure can quickly tear rural communities apart and lead to mass relocations, converting rural communities to industrial landscapes within only a few years.
The scientists suggest that future projects undergo more rigorous environmental justice assessments that incorporate culture- and community-focused research and local perspectives. They call upon other scientists to partner with marginalized communities to identify and quantify impacts that may be overlooked or ignored by the powerful forces behind pipeline projects. Finally, they remind decisionmakers to consider the cumulative risks of existing oil and natural gas industry infrastructure, including the issues that follow climate change, which also tend to affect those most vulnerable. (GeoHealth, https://doi.org/10.1029/2021GH000442, 2021)
—Elizabeth Thompson, Science Writer