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Research: More oil and gas wells in redlined neighborhoods

Historically marginalized communities are exposed to more wells with their accompanying pollution

An oil rig operates next to a walking and cycling path in the city of Signal Hill, CA. (Photo: Sarah Craig)

New research  from Berkeley Public Health and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management published today in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology shows that community exposure to oil and gas wells is more likely in historically redlined neighborhoods, exposing residents to environmental stressors such as water and air pollution. The study results add to evidence that structural racism in government policy is associated with more oil and gas wells being situated in marginalized neighborhoods.

Lead author Dr. David J.X. Gonzalez, a postdoctoral researcher, said he and his team investigated whether racially discriminatory security maps promulgated by the federal Home Owners Loan Corporation—a neighborhood ranking system  known as redlining—were associated with higher exposure to oil and gas wells.

Redlining,” a widespread federally-backed discriminatory mortgage appraisal practice dating to the 1930s, was the process of color-coding areas red if they included high concentrations of Black, Latinx, Asian, immigrant, or working-class residents, deeming these areas excessively risky for investment. This designation blocked access to favorable lending and other services. Historically redlined areas have been cumulatively affected by a low prevalence of home ownership, uneven economic development, displacement of residents, and lack of access to education and economic opportunities.

“No matter how we looked at it, redlined neighborhoods had more wells,” Gonzalez said. “There are persistent health and social inequities in redlined neighborhoods and ongoing pollution from oil and gas wells could, in part, explain why we see these disparities.”

The researchers looked at exposure to oil and gas wells among HOLC-graded neighborhoods in 33 cities in 13 states where urban oil and gas wells were drilled and operated. Gonzalez said the study “adds to the evidence that racially marginalized communities in California and elsewhere have borne disproportionate burden of exposure to oil and gas wells.”

The paper is part of a broader research agenda looking into oil and gas production and health equity in California as the state considers instituting a setback between new oil and gas wells and homes, schools, and medical facilities, according to Gonzalez.

Coauthors of the study are David J.X. Gonzalez of UC Berkeley School of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley; Anthony Nardone of the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program; Andrew V. Nguyen at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health; Rachel Morello-Frosh of UC Berkeley School of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley; and Joan A. Casey of Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.

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