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Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Oil and gas - upstream public health impacts. Do the benefits outweigh the costs, and who gets to decide?

This series on oil and gas industry and public health impacts stated with a the previous blog looking at the tar sands and impacts DrPHealth October 28 2013, only to discover misrepresentation of a scientific study that wasn’t about the tar sands at all.

Previously, and still the most referenced blog posting,  is an article on fracking from just over a year ago DrPHealth fracking October 2012. Related to the boom and bust cycles of rural and remote industry is a post DrPHealth rural, remore and northern development October 9 2013.

The oil and gas industry is a complex multitude of processes and health threats. Routine operational aspects such as flaring, fracking, and refining are common day terms with a multitude of implications.  “Upstream” resource extraction activities tend to be associated with more rural locations, transient workers, boom and bust economies with associated health challenges.  Some 120,000 people in Alberta are employed in the upstream activities.  The annual “investment” in oil sands activity being in the range of $20B.  The royality benefit to Alberta in the range of $4.5B annually.  One of the best measures of personal and community health is economic vibrancy, so supporting a dynamic economic environment has value, while monitoring and mitigating the potential negative impacts. 

Itinerant worker camps over double the population of the area, and while many are concerned about the health impacts of such camps, the proportion of emergency visits to local hospitals in oil and gas country which are industrial driven or even camp related is a small percentage (reportedly ~5% in NE BC).   Not surprising given very healthy workers and rigorous occupational safety requirements. 

Add to the requirement for good health prior to employment, many camps are moving towards strict drug and alcohol restrictions for workers in camp.  Camps are becoming managed mobile communities – not specific to any one employer, but cautiously managed to ensure a supply of able bodied persons. 

The major concern in these developing communities is less about health care system demands, and more about the social disruption to communities, the threat of recession and loss of income for local businesses (itinerant workers merely travel somewhere else).  

There are few local protests to the environmental damage, and while concerns are expressed about personal health and wellbeing and the potential negative impacts, they do not dominant discussion.  Some excellent work has been done in flagging the real and potential concerns on health (and other consequences) and should guide public health’s approach to upstream energy sector impacts.

The excellent Royal Society report is augmented by a few other key public health documents

A fundamental question to be asked is whether industrial development of this nature should have a new positive benefit (utilitarian ethic of the greatest good for the greatest number), or that there should be no negative consequence for any person/community (liberal ethic that there is some good for all)?  Depending on your view, the tolerance for negative consequences may be different, and respecting differences of opinion a key to conflict resolution that can be a significant issue. 

As environmentalists across the globe project their concerns about the impacts of oil and gas growth in Alberta (and concurrent growth in BC and Saskatchewan areas benefiting from natural resource fields), the issues facing residents, workers and local communities are at a disconnect from what critics located in urban settings and at distance from the “coal face” purport as the problems. 

To come, distribution and pipelines, downstream refining and processing, and product utilization 

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