"Preventing major fossil fuel projects protects health" - Gerald Cufley, MD

This letter was written by Dr. Gerald Cufley of WPSR’s Climate & Health Task Force.

On January 28th, King County Leadership can take a bold step forward in providing for the health and safety of the county’s citizens by voting in favor of an ordinance preventing new fossil fuel infrastructure. Fossil fuels not only present risks of explosions and fires but negatively affect human health. These adverse health effects that result from exposure during the extraction, processing, transportation and use of fossil fuels have been well documented and include chronic respiratory diseases, cancers, and birth defects.  Cardiovascular events such as heart attacks and strokes are known to be associated with areas of air pollution. On a broader scale indirect health effects caused by global warming and related extreme weather events add to the list, injuries, heat stroke, certain infectious diseases due to the northward migration of vectors carrying diseases, malnutrition, starvation and public health risks associated with human migration.

Whatcom County and Portland, OR have passed similar measures to protect their citizens from fossil fuel projects. King County can and should be next.

Efforts to place a methanol production facility in Kalama, Washington provide a good example of why King County must take action to ensure the health and safety of its citizens.  The Kalama project is designed to convert methane (natural gas) to methanol presumably to be shipped to Asia for use in the production of plastics. The amount of methane required would be extraordinary, an amount that would heat 1.6 million homes and would require a dramatic expansion of currently available natural gas pipeline capacity. Such an expansion would most likely occur along the Northwest Pipeline System running north south along a right of way through the center of King County and would put these previously rural but now densely populated areas of the county at increased risks of fire and explosion.  Beyond these more obvious risks are the increase in health risks associated with the path of natural gas from extraction to end user and the overarching health risks associated with global warming. Such health risks could be compounded by the decades long use of expanded infrastructure originally put in place for the purpose of producing plastic but potentially used for providing natural gas for electricity production, heating, and industry.

Natural gas is not a bridge fuel but rather the lesser of two evils.  Yes, the burning of natural gas produces less carbon dioxide per unit of captured energy when compared to coal and contains less impurities, but the savings in carbon dioxide emissions is largely lost when leakage of natural gas, so called fugitive gas, from drilling sites, pipelines, compressor stations and refining facilities is taken into account. Methane is 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a GHG. The environmental scar left behind by extracting natural gas does not end with the atmosphere.  The fracking process uses large amount of water and leaves behind toxic materials.

                                                                                                                                                                                         What must be an enormous cost to society of supporting the ills that arise in the wake of fossil fuel use is not easy to calculate. The foremost medical journal, The Lancet, calls climate change the biggest public health threat of our lifetime. A special report on climate change and health released in November reminded us that low income and communities of color are often most impacted.

Certainly, fossil fuel exploitation has given rise to an unprecedented standard of living, but alternative energy sources, including wind and solar, exist which are cost competitive and avoid the health risks and global warming associated with fossil fuel use.  The leadership of King County can do its citizens a service by fulfilling its constitutional obligation of assuring the health and safety of the people of King County and at the same time set an example for others to follow in the effort to secure an endurable future for the generations to come. WPSR in the strongest terms, urges King County Leadership to support a moratorium on new fossil fuel projects.

Gerald A Cufley, MD

Climate & Health Task Force

Washington Physicians for Social Responsibility