Belinda Archibong: Estimating the Health and Economic Costs of Gas Flaring

by |March 8, 2021

This story is part of a series celebrating the work of women at the Earth Institute, in honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, 2021. Read more about the day and our related blog posts here.

Belinda Archibong moved to the U.S. from Nigeria with her family when she was a teenager. Before becoming an assistant professor of economics at Barnard College and an Earth Institute faculty member, Archibong studied economics at Columbia University for her undergraduate degree and then completed her master’s and Ph.D. in sustainable development.

belinda archibong

Earth Institute faculty member Belinda Archibong studies development economics, political economy, economic history and environmental economics with an African regional focus.

In her niche as researcher in environmental health and development economics, she has investigated how history and the environment influence inequality, delving into how epidemics affect gender gaps and exploring the causes of gender inequalities in African countries’ labor markets.

Her other goal is to hold oil and gas corporations accountable for their significant greenhouse gas emissions. Archibong started carrying out research studies on gas flaring policy during her Ph.D. at Columbia University. Flare gas refers to the gas that is burned off as a waste product during the manufacturing of petrochemicals, landfill gas extraction, and the industrial processes of oil and gas recovery. It is also a major environmental health concern for communities living close to areas where fossil fuels are extracted.

In a conversation with the State of the Planet, below, she talks about the adverse health impacts of gas flaring policy on communities in the U.S. and Nigeria, plus her projects examining epidemics and their economic outcomes.

Can you tell us more about your ongoing project on gas flaring?

The oil and gas industry is the major contributor to carbon emissions. We are looking into what are the health and broad human capital effects of these oil and gas activities.

One way to get companies to reduce pollution and mitigate the negative impacts of climate change is to get them to internalize the external costs of pollution using carbon taxes. That includes pricing the cost of pollution when they are producing and supplying oil and gas. This makes the companies reduce pollution and gives revenue to the government to be able to spend on improving access to health and education for all. By making the companies internalize the cost, we as consumers are not individually bearing the health costs.

We need to know the magnitude of the costs for human populations so that we can know how much to price that tax for these companies, which is what our project is working on in Nigeria. We are also carrying out a project in North Dakota to delve into the effects of gas flaring on human health and cognitive development in children. We hope to continue working on these projects and resume our fieldwork whenever it is possible during this pandemic.

Are gas flaring regulations in North Dakota able to protect communities from air pollution?

We have been focusing on what economists call command and control policies. For example, companies cannot flare over a certain amount, or else they are fined. However, if the fine that is placed for gas flaring is too low, companies are going to realize it is cheaper to pay fines than to stop gas flaring over the permissible levels.

One important question that comes out of this is: What exactly are the costs that locals are bearing due to gas flaring? That way, we can come up with an appropriate fine for these companies as a punishment for flouting gas flaring regulations. Enforcement of these regulations is vital.

Unfortunately, in the U.S., the Trump administration has rolled back environmental regulations. This includes regulations on the oil and gas industry. One such example is the National Environment Policy Act. In that program, locals were involved in monitoring the pollution levels in their neighborhoods. The idea is that if you roll back these regulations, you will have more jobs because employers will have fewer costs and can hire more people. Research has shown that this is actually not the case. All that happens when you roll back these regulations is that you have an increase in pollution. In North Dakota, we are studying how air pollution caused by gas flaring may increase due to these changes.

Is this issue of lax environmental regulations also taking place in Nigeria?

On paper, Nigeria has one of the most complex and detailed anti-gas flaring regulations since the 1970s. For a few years, we saw some reductions in gas flaring, but we have also observed increases. So, the big question is whether the regulations are being imposed or not. The main problem is the lack of enforcement of environmental regulations.

Children are the most vulnerable to pollution because their bodies are still developing. Gas flaring is known to cause cognitive impairment in children. In economic literature, we have what is called the fetal origins hypothesis. If a pregnant woman is breathing in these fumes, it can affect the development of her unborn child. The child may be more likely to be underweight and stunted and may also have a higher risk of cognitive defects in the future.

Adults are also impacted. There is a high incidence of respiratory illnesses amongst communities exposed to gas flaring, including asthma and bronchitis.

As an economist, what part of your job do you find frustrating and what do you enjoy the most?

The reason why I love working at the Earth Institute is because of its interdisciplinary core. While studying the economic outcomes of health issues, it is impossible to ignore the impacts of gender inequality and climate change. All of these things are interlinked. Understanding that is crucial for crafting effective health policy.

For example, during an epidemic or a pandemic in Africa, people’s out-of-pocket healthcare expenditure is significantly higher as compared to the rest of the world. In relatively lower income African countries, people’s individual, out-of-pocket spending accounts for over 40% of total health spending (which also includes government and private health spending), compared to the global average of around 19%. When you have these kinds of health shocks or sudden exposure to diseases, it puts tremendous stress and income constraints on households. Our research shows that in many cases, families decide to reduce investment in their daughters’ education by, for example, pulling them out of school and marrying them off at earlier ages. This helps families deal with the high costs associated with epidemics, as they are also able to receive wealth transfers from the groom’s family under regional bride price traditions. It also worsens gender inequality.

When I try and convey how every issue is interlinked to policymakers, it can be very challenging to get them on the same page. Oftentimes within governments, the Ministry of Health, Ministry of Environment, and Ministry of Gender tend to work independently and rarely collaborate on any projects or initiatives. They are also under several financial constraints. This is why interdisciplinary funding plays a vital role, and I remain optimistic about the future of collaborative work addressing these issues.

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