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A major unmanned aircraft (drone) attack on one of Saudi Arabia's largest oil refineries early Saturday morning caused the kingdom to cut its production by 5.7 million barrels per day, or more than half. This caused shocks in world markets. The global oil supply had an even greater impact than during the Iranian Revolution, and crude prices soared above 5% per barrel.
Since the attacks, much of the media attention has focused on the oil markets and on President Donald Trump's provocative statement, which assured that the United States is "prepared to respond" on the perpetrators. (Houthi rebels in Yemen, who are often backed by Iran, claimed responsibility for the attack.)
But not many headlines have focused on the environmental implications of the attack. Of course, globally, the economic shockwaves from the attack on the Abqaiq facilities highlight how much of our planet still depends on the oil industry, a major source of greenhouse gases.
But Abqaiq is also a local environmental story. Although details of the bombing have yet to be reported, we know that the refinery explosions are an environmental threat, spewing toxic chemicals into the air and threatening the health of anyone nearby.
When a petrochemical storage facility caught fire in suburban Houston in March, for example, more than nine million pounds of pollutants were released into the air in one day. Carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, toluene, and naphtha are among the toxic chemicals detected near the facility.
In June, the Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery, the largest oil refinery complex on the East Coast, also caught fire. Although city officials said the blast did not worsen air quality around the facility, experts and nearby residents argued otherwise.
Given that the Abqaiq refinery complex is the world's largest oil processing facility, the health consequences for residents and workers in the vicinity of the refinery are likely to be even worse than in Houston and Philadelphia.
The Wall Street Journal reports that local witnesses saw plumes of black smoke billowing out of the facility, a sure sign of particulate matter that can cause a variety of health problems. And according to the Air Quality Index, which is measured through satellites and data from the tens of thousands of air quality monitoring stations around the world, air pollution levels around Abqaiq jumped from low to moderate to high levels after the attack. The forecasts also project air quality to reach “unhealthy” levels in the following days.
The Gulf region is already home to the worst air pollution in the world, thanks not only to the fossil fuel industry, but also to the presence of sand and dust from the desert. The unmanned aircraft (drone) attack on the Abqaiq facility promises to make it even more difficult for Saudis living near the refinery to breathe.