A new report on last year’s historic floods in Colorado has completely discredited the “ban fracking” activists who campaigned throughout one of the state’s worst natural disasters. These are the same political activists who are now pushing statewide ballot measures aimed at banning oil and gas development across Colorado.
According to the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission’s (COGCC) “lessons learned” report from the September 2013 floods:
“Early on, there were widespread fears that public safety was threatened by damaged oil and gas equipment. Those fears later proved to be unfounded, but they attracted nationwide attention nevertheless.”
Those “unfounded” fears were the direct result of reckless claims from environmental activists who were running campaigns to ban oil and gas development in several cities along Colorado’s Northern Front Range.
For example, in the aftermath of the flood, Frack Free Colorado claimed the damage to oil and gas facilities was a “public health disaster.” Food & Water Watch warned of widespread damage from “toxic chemicals and communities were “just beginning to see the extent of the devastation.” And East Boulder County United claimed there was a “danger of toxicology” and “exposure [to chemicals] that the human population is going to have to suffer through.”
These claims received “nationwide attention” because in the middle of an unfolding natural catastrophe, the activists were running an aggressive public-relations campaign to pressure state and national news outlets to cover the story as a “fracking flood disaster.” For example, Washington, D.C.-based Earthworks circulated a petition for a statewide ban on oil and gas development while lobbying national TV networks “to go cover the environmental disaster that’s happening in Colorado right now.”
The activist campaign was well-funded enough to provide free flights to media outlets over the flood zone. The organizers bragged of “hitting national and local news all over the country” with “very upsetting images” that “stirred controversial discussions and debates.”
But the activists misled the news media about where almost all of the pollution in the water was coming from. The Denver Post ran a front page photo purporting to show a stagnant pond filled with crude oil, but the newspaper was wrong and issued a correction. The photo simply showed “rusty-colored” water left over from the flood, and the dark color was due to all the other pollutants – mostly untreated sewage – released into the torrent.
Ultimately, the all-out political campaigning from “ban fracking” activists was calculated to distract most of the news media from what public safety officials and other experts in Colorado viewed as the real threat. As the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment noted in the immediate aftermath of the flood: “There were likely hundreds of millions of gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage and that is the larger public health concern.”
By comparison, this week’s “lessons learned” report from state regulators concludes 48,250 gallons of oil and condensate and 43,478 gallons of produced water were released from damaged oil and gas equipment during the flood. Together, these releases are a small fraction – about one-seventh – of the volume of a single Olympic-sized swimming pool.
While any release is unfortunate, the COGCC notes that:
“For the most part, spilled liquids from oil and gas operations washed away in the flood without leaving a trace behind. These spilled materials were greatly diluted by the flood waters. They are now undetectable. These facts are evident in samples taken after the flood in affected streams by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the United States Geological Survey. These facts are also evident in samples taken and data analyzed by operators after flood waters receded.”
In the end, this report shows that impacts from oil and gas operations during the floods last year were nowhere near as dramatic or disastrous as activists loudly claimed they were. So, while the oil and gas industry takes this report and set of recommendations seriously, the “ban fracking” activists in Colorado are likely to pretend it simply doesn’t exist.