Mountain States

Boulder Daily Camera’s Case for Passing Prop 112 Not Supported By the Facts

The Boulder Daily Camera officially endorsed Proposition 112 over the weekend, publishing an editorial that claims passing the economically devastating measure would be a net positive by addressing public health concerns,

“When it comes to oil and gas development, [regulators] glibly dismiss resident concerns about health and safety or claim that, given the laws on the books, there’s little they can do. But voters who live near oil and gas operations have legitimate fears about their physical well-being, and, in the face of inaction on the part of elected leaders, they should approve Proposition 112.”

But not only does the Daily Camera gloss over the harsh economic realities passage of Prop 112 would yield, its argument in favor of the measure is based almost entirely on thoroughly debunked health studies, underscoring why a vast majority of Colorado elected officials – even “Keep It In the Ground” gubernatorial candidate Jared Polis – oppose this extreme measure. Here are the most egregious claims made in the editorial, along with facts every voter should be aware of prior to heading to the polls on Nov. 6.

CLAIM: “A distance of 2,500 feet is based on ‘health studies that show harmful effects, such as cancer, difficulty breathing, low birth weights and birth defects, on people living within a half-mile of fracking operations,’ according to Colorado Rising, the group that sponsored the ballot initiative.”

FACT: There is no scientific justification to support the 2,500-foot setbacks Prop 112 would mandate.

The leader of Colorado Rising – the group spearheading the push to pass Prop 112, along with several national anti-fracking groups – has admitted that the group’s scientific justification for 2,500-foot setbacks is based on a single 2012 study that has been thoroughly disavowed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), along with numerous other reputable third parties. As Colorado Public Radio recently reported,

“Anne Lee Foster with the environmental group Colorado Rising, told CPR News recently that the 2,500-foot setback is ‘not just an arbitrary number like the current setback is.’ Instead, it’s a number ‘based on science,’ that comes from a 2012 University of Colorado study that found people living within a half mile (2,640 feet) of wells had a greater risk for health effects compared to those living further away.”

That study – the first of four led by go-to anti-fracking researcher Lisa McKenzie to be disavowed by the CDPHE – purported to find that Garfield County “residents living ≤ ½ mile from wells are at greater risk for health effects from NGD than are residents living > ½ mile from wells…”

But as EID has noted numerous times over the years, the study “became embroiled in controversy” soon after its release due to criticism by the CDPHE (among others) regarding the report’s numerous troubling flaws. The CDPHE even backed out funding for the study after criticizing the authors’ approach, and the report was even disavowed by Garfield County environmental health chief Jim Rada for a myriad of reasons, including:

  • It exaggerated actual emissions by at least 10 times.
  • It was based on out-of-date emissions data taken from 2008 to 2010. Among the rules implemented after this time period were requirements for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) to be reduced by as much as 95 percent through the use of low- or no-bleed pneumatic devices.
  • The researchers assumed new well development takes years to complete rather than months.
  • According to EPA guidelines, the cancer risks found were in line with or even below the risk for the entire U.S. population.
  • The researchers took air samples a mile from Interstate 70 and treated exhaust fumes from automobile traffic from the interstate as if they came from oil and gas wells.
  • The researchers assumed that residents almost never leave the area.

Notably, the CDPHE has recently conducted air quality sampling and monitoring near newly developed oil and gas operations in Garfield County, finding a “low risk of long-term harmful health effects due to VOC exposure,” echoing its past findings based on air monitoring in other areas of the state with significant oil and gas development (more on that in a bit).

CLAIM: “Proposition 112 is more than a plea for quality of life. Life itself is at stake. “(Oil and gas) facilities emit air pollutants that are potentially a major health risk for nearby populations,” said a Colorado School of Public Health study this year. The risks, related to inhalation of benzene and alkanes, increase with proximity to the facilities, the study found, concluding that “state and federal regulatory policies may not be protective of health for populations residing near (oil and gas) facilities.”

FACT: The CDPHE immediately discredited this study’s claims, re-emphasizing that current setbacks are protective of public health.

Hours after this study was released and heavily shopped to the media, Dr. Larry Wolk, then-Chief Medical Officer and Executive Director of the CDPHE, clarified that the McKenzie-led report actually “confirms our 2017 findings of low risk for cancer and non-cancer health effects at distances 500 feet and greater,” noting that, “This study only found increased risk for cancer and non-cancer health effects at distances closer than 500 feet.”

Wolk also noted that the McKenzie study used California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) risk assessment guidelines rather than U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards. As EID has previously noted, this allowed the researchers to inflate the small increase in health impacts from within 500 feet.

In contrast, a 2017 CDPHE evaluation based 10,000 air samples near oil and gas development found that, the risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living [near] oil and gas operations. The CDPHE evaluation also stated that, “All measured air concentrations were below short- and long-term ‘safe’ levels of exposure for non-cancer health effects, even for sensitive populations.” The CDPHE report used EPA guidelines and currently established setback limits, unlike the McKenzie study, which was clearly designed to alarm the public by inflating risk levels.

CLAIM: “Babies who lived within 0.62 miles (2,500 feet is just short of half a mile) of a fracking site in Pennsylvania were found in a study published last year in Science Advances to have a 25 percent greater chance of being born underweight.”

FACT: The low birth weight rate found at 0.62 miles was eight percent – which happens to be the national average.

By one of the co-authors’ of this study’s own admission, the “elevated” low birth rate found in the area of the study closest to oil and gas development (2,500) was eight percent, which happens to be the national rate, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In other words, the “elevated” low birth rate wasn’t elevated at all.

And due to the fact that the researchers took no environmental measurements, they also failed to establish a causal link between the slightly “elevated” level of low birth weight rates found in the study area and fracking.

“A limitation of our study is that given the nature of the available data, we are constrained to focus on potential exposure to pollution (which is determined by the mother’s residential location) rather than actual exposure that could be measured with personal monitoring devices.”

As EID and reputable third parties have noted, this is a common flaw in the body of research purporting a link between fracking and adverse health impacts.

The researchers also conceded that mothers who participated in the study were “younger, less likely to have been married at the time of the birth, and less educated— characteristics that might lead to worse infant health outcomes even in the absence of fracturing.”

Far more relevant than this flawed birth weight study is the fact that CDPHE data shows no increase in low birth weight rates (or any increased adverse health outcomes, period) in its most heavily drilled county in recent years. EID highlighted this data in our March health report and op-ed, and the Greeley Tribune also reported in 2016 that CDPHE data show:

“The numbers, which were reported in two-year increments between 2008 and 2012, show that Weld does not have significantly more, and in many cases, it has fewer, instances of asthma, cancer, birth defects, infant mortality and low birth weights than other Front Range counties.” (Emphasis added)

CLAIM: Ground-level ozone levels in Colorado have exceeded Environmental Protection Agency limits, and a study published last November in the journal Elementa identified oil and gas activities as a major contributor.”

FACT: Oil and gas development is not a major contributor to ground level ozone formation in Colorado.

A 2016 National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study looking at ozone and oil and natural gas development along Colorado’s Front Range found that oil and gas only accounts for 17 percent of the area’s ozone, completely debunking the oft-repeated “Keep It In the Ground” claim that fracking is a major contributor.

Furthermore, Coloradans are responsible for only 25 percent of the ozone in the Metro Denver and North Front Range Ozone non-attainment area. The remaining 75 percent comes from other states and countries, particularly China.

Volatile organic compound (VOC) and nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions are the primary contributors to ground level ozone formation, and emissions of both pollutants have been declining significantly in recent years, the latter thanks largely to increased natural gas-fired electricity generation, which has been made possible by fracking. Colorado VOC and NOx emissions have been declining as well. According to the latest CDPHE data, the state’s VOCs emissions have plummeted by nearly half in just six years – even as oil production in the state quadrupled.

CLAIM: “The jobs that industry advocates warn would be lost include retail, health care, hospitality and other positions presumed to be supported by oil and gas activity. But Colorado enjoys a diverse, vibrant economy, and it’s not at all certain that a diminished extraction industry would devastate the economy as a whole, particularly if green energy opportunities expand.”

FACT: Officials on both sides of the political aisle agree that passage of Prop 112 would devastate the economy.

The Daily Camera’s take on the economic fallout of Prop 112 passing is foolishly naïve at best, and it simply doesn’t align with reality – which is why political leaders from both sides of the aisle oppose the measure.

A Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission assessment found that more than 85 percent of the state’s non-federal land would be placed off-limits to new oil and gas development should the 2,500-foot setback pass, a devastating effect on Colorado’s ability to maintain a vibrant industry. A Common Sense Policy Roundtable study finds passage of Prop 112 would result in the loss of up to 147,800 Colorado jobs by 2030. The study also shows that Prop 112 would reduce state and local tax revenue between $825 million and $1.1 billion during that same timeframe, including money for education, law enforcement, and other critical infrastructure. The Colorado Alliance of Mineral and Royalty Owners (CAMRO) commissioned its own study that found that increasing setbacks to 2,500 feet would strand $180 billion worth of resources, costing mineral rights owners as much at $26 billion.

These are a few reasons why Democratic Denver Mayor Michael Hancock recently announced his opposition to Prop 112 based on his belief that it would “irreparably harm” Colorado’s economy.

The Weld County Board of County Commissioners also recently voted unanimously to oppose Proposition 112, based largely on the fact that “the devastating economic impacts [out-of-state activists groups] will leave behind if they succeed” in passing Prop 112. A coalition of 14 Weld County mayors has also formally opposed Prop 112, with Greeley Mayor John Gates noting,

“It strikes me that the current governor and both gubernatorial candidates are against 112. People on opposite ends of the political spectrum say this is bad for Colorado. Is there a risk, yes, but there is risk to walking across the street. To me it’s important that we have a thriving economy.”

Bottom line, experts agree that the Daily Camera’s claim that “it’s not at all certain that a diminished extraction industry would devastate the economy as a whole” couldn’t be further from the truth.

CLAIM: “Job losses are always lamentable, but the transition toward green energy sources is a practical and moral imperative, and Proposition 112 would play a role in achieving such progress.”

FACT: Prop 112 would make no tangible difference in reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and would serve only as a costly symbolic action, much like Boulder’s ongoing and misguided climate litigation.

Climate change is a global issue, and in the grand scheme, eliminating future oil and gas development in Colorado will have no discernable impact on greenhouse gas reductions. For perspective, thanks largely to increased natural gas use made possible by fracking, the United States has led the world in carbon dioxide reductions since 2005. But even combining the United States’ CO2 reductions with the next four top countries’ reductions since 2005, emissions increases in China and India of 3,057 million metric tons (mmt) and 877 mmt, respectively, by far offset reductions by the United States and other leading countries.

However, the Daily Camera’s argument in the above quote reveals this push to pass Prop 112 for what it really is – an effort to ban oil and gas development, not an honest attempt to establish common sense setbacks based on hard scientific evidence.

Conclusion

Like many Prop 112 proponents, the Daily Camera editorial board is characterizing this debate as an either-or choice between public health and a thriving economy. But while the economic devastation passage of Prop 112 would wreak is very real and not in dispute, the flimsy “evidence” cited in this editorial – and by the Colorado “Keep It In the Ground” in general – to verify claims of widespread health impacts simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.

2 Comments
  • Luke Ross
    Posted at 22:44h, 01 October Reply

    Well reasoned arguments backed by facts. Thanks for avoiding anecdotes and hyperbole. No on 112.

  • L. Wells
    Posted at 21:50h, 07 October Reply

    It is noted that all the entities who refute the health based risks of the study and other data are those with an interest in keeping drilling alive and well in CO despite the impacts to people and the environment. Climate impacts alone from all the methane released is enough justification to vote YES on 112. The Ozone non-attainment of Denver and the Northern Front Range (Weld County included) caused in significant part by oil and gas wells is a close second. I know you will refute those impacts as well, but educated readers will do the research on their own. A good place to start is https://www.psr.org/blog/resource/compendium-of-scientific-medical-and-media-findings-demonstrating-risks-and-harms-of-fracking/

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