For those who have followed the debate over hydraulic fracturing in recent years, it will come as no surprise to learn that oil and gas opponents conveniently ignore credible research and authoritative sources that don’t support their ideological views.
Instead, they falsely claim that an industry comprised of scientists, engineers and other technical experts – which is regulated by scientists, engineers and other technical experts – has managed for decades to escape study from scientists, engineers and other technical experts. And since almost no studies have been done, the activists claim, the oil and gas industry must be shut down overnight so it can be, well…studied. And not studied by just anyone, mind you, but by researchers who have a poor understanding of how oil and gas is actually produced and regulated, or – their preference – by anti-industry activists with an ax to grind.
This dishonest strategy is being used in Colorado today to mislead and scare the public and their elected officials. And it’s a strategy aimed at generating quotes like this one in a recent edition of the Greeley Tribune:
“There are no health reports or studies on the Front Range at all,” said Fort Collins state Democratic Rep. Joann Ginal, of her bill last session requesting a health study. It died in committee. “The silence and lack of data is unsettling to people. People need to hear something about the health effects. The current practice of denying the link between drilling and air and water (pollution) is not beneficial.”
No studies? That’s what environmental activists are telling elected officials, perhaps. But it’s simply not true, and the activists know it.
For example, let’s examine recent events in the town of Erie, which straddles Weld and Boulder counties on the Front Range. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has an observation tower in Erie, which collects data on air quality. Last year, a group of activists claimed data from the NOAA tower showed Erie’s air quality was dangerously bad; worse than the air quality of Houston and Los Angeles.
In response, the Town of Erie commissioned two separate air quality studies, which not only debunked the “worse than Houston and L.A.” talking point from activists, but also concluded the NOAA tower data “does not present a health concern” and “the risk of Erie residents experiencing an adverse health effect over a lifetime … is low.”
Then, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) conducted an air monitoring project at an Erie well site during drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The site selected by CDPHE was the same one that activists had complained about. Washington, D.C.-based pressure group Food & Water Watch even called it the new “ground zero” of the national movement against hydraulic fracturing.
The CDPHE placed monitors within a few hundred yards of the well site, and found:
“No significant concentrations were recorded that could be directly attributed to well completion operations at this well pad.”
That’s right, the monitors were right next door to a well site during drilling and hydraulic fracturing, and “no significant concentrations” of any pollutant were recorded as coming from the well site.
But besides monitoring the emissions from the well site, the CDPHE’s equipment also recorded background levels of various pollutants to determine the town’s overall air quality. Those levels were “well within acceptable limits to protect public health, as determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency” and “concentrations of various compounds are comparatively low and are not likely to raise significant health issues of concern.”
Having already commissioned two studies on data collected by a federal agency, the Town of Erie conducted another examination, this time focused on what state officials had found. For a third time, the town concluded the health risk is low. And, in case you were wondering, Erie purchased special equipment to monitor its water sources for hydraulic fracturing fluids and “test results from all sites have come back negative.”
But that’s not the end of the research, of course. Earlier this year, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper sought funding for a “targeted survey of the impacts of specific oil and gas extraction operations on environmental air quality,” and a partnership with Colorado State University “to begin collecting data for a broader study of the impacts of oil and gas operations on air quality in the northern Front Range.”
And then there’s the constant monitoring of air quality, required under state and federal environmental laws, which the activists also manage to overlook when they claim almost nothing is known about the environment, public health, and oil and gas development.
Colorado’s state-wide network of air quality monitors tracks all kinds of different pollutants, including ground-level ozone, better known as smog. Smog is formed when two different types of air pollution – volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides – react in the lower atmosphere with the help of sunlight. Oil and gas development is a potential source of smog-forming pollution, along with factories, power plants, car and truck exhaust fumes, gasoline vapors from vehicle refueling and chemical solvents, according to the EPA.
So, after the dramatic increases in oil and natural gas production we’ve seen in Colorado in recent years, have we seen a dramatic increase in smog? Let’s ask the Air Pollution Control Division of the CDPHE:
“In recent years, the trend has been downward, but the averages seem to fluctuate within the amount of variance seen for the last several years.”
You read that right: oil and gas development has dramatically increased, but a state report says smog levels are holding steady. Why? Because the oil and gas industry works hard to minimize emissions, those emissions are closely watched and tightly regulated by the State of Colorado, and the regulations are working. Or as William Allison, director of the CDPHE’s Air Pollution Control Division, told Congress:
“Colorado has been at the forefront of regulating air emissions from oil and gas operations for many years, and has a comprehensive regulatory framework. … [D]espite the growth of oil and gas emission sources in Colorado, over the past decade we have seen decreases in the levels of many organic pollutants associated with oil and gas operations.”
And even more regulation of oil and gas emissions may be on its way, according to the CDPHE. The state agency is working on new rules that “will enhance Colorado’s already robust regulation of oil and gas air emissions, continuing our position as a national leader in this area.”
With all this attention from regulators and other stakeholders, you cannot make a credible case that Colorado’s oil and gas industry is going unmonitored or unstudied. These are just a few examples of the kind of scrutiny under which the industry operates every day, in Colorado and across the country. But activists pretend these efforts don’t exist, just because some studies are ongoing, and others have concluded that oil and gas operations are safe.
Of course, an industry that’s studied, regulated and held accountable by a wide range of stakeholders doesn’t sound scary enough to eliminate overnight, which is what the activists are calling for when they demand a ban on hydraulic fracturing. So the activists just have to keep saying “there are no studies” over and over again, and hope that nobody ever holds them accountable for the things they say and do.