Drawing on data from Colorado counties, a report released yesterday by Physicians for Social Responsibility warns that pollution from oil and gas extraction may increase rates of COVID-19 infection and death.

The report, titled “Air Pollution and COVID-19: A Dangerous Combination,” studied five Colorado counties with high levels of pollution from oil and gas operations and extraction, including Adams, Broomfield, Garfield, La Plata, and Weld counties. 

The study found a higher than expected number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in Adams, Broomfield, and Weld counties. These counties are located in the Denver Julesburg Basin, which has some of the highest levels of oil and gas pollution in the state.

The study also observed COVID-19 rates and deaths in five New Mexico counties with high levels of oil and gas extraction. 

Of the counties observed, Lea, Eddy, and San Juan counties had higher COVID infection rates than expected. 

Additionally, a disproportionately high number of cases were found among Native American populations and people aged 20-49 years in these counties. 

The report builds on research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which finds an association between elevated exposure to pollution and COVID-19 deaths. 

Director for Environment and Health at Physicians for Social Responsibility Barbara Gottlieb said in a press release that reducing air pollution can help protect people from COVID-19.

“Evidence is mounting up that air pollution increases the risk of getting a respiratory virus, and we’re concerned by these indications that pollution from oil and gas operations could increase infections and deaths from COVID-19,” Gottlieb said. “The obvious conclusion is that, to protect people from COVID-19, we need to reduce air pollution from all sources.”

In a letter addressed to President Biden, Executive Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility Jeff Carter said public health impacts need to be considered when thinking about oil and gas development and praised the President’s move to pause oil and gas leasing on public lands.  

“As medical professionals working to protect public health, we urge you to take these findings into account as you determine further actions in regard to public lands,” Carter said. “Given what we already know about the adverse impacts on health caused by toxic contaminants released by oil and gas extraction, and now, the possibility that they also increase vulnerability to the deadly COVID-19 virus, we urge you to make the pause on oil and gas leasing on public lands permanent.” 

Kathleen Sgamma, President of the Western Energy Alliance, told the Colorado Times Recorder that the study is not credible, and said energy from oil and gas has been important in the fight against COVID-19.

“Vaccine refrigeration, ICUs, and supply chains are not possible without oil and natural gas,” she said. “Without oil and natural gas, public health would be endangered and COVID would be even more deadly.”

Western Energy Alliance, which represents oil and gas producers, filed a lawsuit Wednesday challenging the President’s executive order to temporarily pause oil and gas leasing permits on public lands. 

“Biden’s ban is an overreach meant to satisfy the environmental left,” said Sgamma. “But it would seriously harm the livelihoods of tens of thousands of westerners and put at risk millions more as state services become unfunded.”