Fact Check on the Denver Post’s Prop 112 Coverage
Earlier this week, the Denver Post took a deeper dive into the arguments for and against Proposition 112, with specific focus on the question of health and safety.
Energy In Depth has been at the forefront of these issues both here in Colorado and across the country, so we were anxious to give the story a solid read and see how the Post did in its coverage. Recall that our op-ed ran in the Denver Post earlier this year discussing our report examining these very issues.
So what’s our take? Simply put, we found significant concerns with the Post article, most notably the failure to properly identify named sources in the story and actually review allegations made by proponents of Proposition 112.
Clearly Identifying Sources.
The Denver Post article cites several sources as experts, but does not give background about the biases these sources may have. It’s not the first time we’ve seen the Denver media be less than forthcoming about identifying sources used in stories, which EID has pointed out in the past.
First up, Professor John Adgate from the University of Colorado Department of Public Health. Quoted several times on the question of emissions sources, the Denver Post left out the fact that Prof. Adgate co-authored several papers purporting to show a connection between oil and gas operations and health impacts that have been widely debunked by experts and state regulators.
These papers are usually nominally identified by the lead author, Prof. Lisa McKenzie. EID has a long history of deconstructing these studies and calling out the “McKenzie Playbook,” which is utilized every time these reports are released: step one is to release the report garnering misleading and alarmist headlines about the connection between health effects and operations, step 2 is the immediate pushback these reports receive by state regulators describing the limitations of the study, step 3 we see anti-fracking activists skirt feedback from the regulators and capitalize on the initial headlines to scare the public without acknowledging the shortcomings of the study. Rinse, wash, repeat. A handy infographic detailing the playbook is available here.
Next, the Denver Post fails to provide background on Sandra Steingrabger, who is a well-known and self-identified anti-fracking activist from New York. She even has her own documentary! The film, Unfractured, chronicles the efforts she took to ban fracking in New York. When Steingraber made her visit to Denver earlier this month, EID was in attendance and posted this blog.
Note that Steingraber faced much controversy after she failed to disclose clear conflicts of interest while peer-reviewing a research paper which was later used to justify New York State’s ban on hydraulic fracturing. The paper was touted as sound science, even though the three authors providing the review were all known to have ties to anti-fracking activist groups. Steingraber herself is the co-founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking.
But Steingraber’s extensive anti-fracking activism is missing from the Denver Post’s article. Instead, she is simply identified as a biologist with Concerned Health Professionals. Steingraber is quoted as criticizing a comprehensive 2017 study conducted by the Colorado Department of Health and Environment which analyzed more than 10,000 air samples and found “the risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living near oil and gas operations.” She says the study lacked rigor, but she received no pushback. Pretty ironic given her own history with scientific research.
Let’s Take Another Look at the Health Report by Colorado’s Top Health Regulators
While activists are happy to throw out unsubstantiated claims about emissions and health impacts, the conversation and facts should focus on what health experts and regulators are saying about the issue.
Here is what EID found in its recap of CDPHE’s 2017 report and our analysis of the numbers.
The CDPHE report analyzed more than 10,000 air samples in the areas of the state where “substantial” oil and natural gas operations occurred, and found that levels of emissions were “safe,” even for sensitive populations. The report itself was a product of the Colorado 2014-15 blue-ribbon oil and gas task force. Dr. Mike Van Dyke, CDPHE’s head of environmental epidemiology, occupational health, and toxicology, pointed to the comprehensive nature of the CDPHE study, that directly measured both air emissions and examined relevant scientific studies on health effects, and ultimately found “no chemicals or substances that exceeded those safe levels.”
Dr. Van Dyke emphasized the findings of the air sample data: “What we found was that based on these data, there were no chemicals or substances that exceeded those safe levels.”
At a separate forum presenting on CDPHE’s findings, Dr. Van Dyke pointed out that the air sample data was not “cherry-picked” but in fact represented “more than 10,000 air samples that measured these substances in regions of Colorado that have substantial oil and gas operations were combined to estimate potential air exposures to people living near oil and gas operations (defined as 500 feet or greater from an oil and gas site). These exposures were compared to standard short- and long-term health-based reference values related to cancer and non-cancer effects.” Five-hundred feet is the current minimum setback for new drilling required in the state of Colorado.
The CDPHE air sample report concluded:
- Levels of emissions were “safe,” even for sensitive populations: “All measured air concentrations of [sic] were below short- and long-term ‘safe’ levels of exposure for noncancer health effects, even for sensitive populations,” CDPHE’s Oil and Gas Health Information and Response Program authors wrote.
- The authors also found that “concentrations of a small number of substances (benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde) in the air surrounding oil and gas operations were 4-5 times lower than standard short- and long-term health-based reference levels for non-cancer effects,” and that “concentrations of the other substances are 5-10,000 times lower than the standard short- and long-term health-based reference values for non-cancer effects.”
- “Cancer risks for all substances were within the ‘Acceptable Risk’ range established by the U.S. EPA,” the authors added. “Overall, available air monitoring data suggest low risk of harmful health effects (emphasis added) from combined exposure to all substances.”
- “Based on currently available air monitoring data, the risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living [near] (sic) oil and gas operations.” CDPHE added, “At this time, results from exposure and health effect studies do not indicate the need for immediate public health action.”
In their report, the CDPHE scientists reviewed 12 relevant epidemiological studies covering 27 different health effects and found “no substantial or moderate evidence for any health effects.” The CDPHE review of epidemiological studies by health effect included: birth outcomes and birth defects; respiratory (eye, nose and throat, lung); neurological (migraines, dizziness); cancer; skin (irritation, rashes); psychological (depression, sleep disturbances); cardiovascular (heart); gastrointestinal (nausea, stomach pain); musculoskeletal (joint pain, muscle aches); and blood/immune system.
“There is limited evidence that exacerbation of existing asthma and self-reported dermal symptoms are associated with exposure to substances emitted from oil and gas operations,” CDPHE wrote. “There is a lack of evidence or, in some cases, conflicting evidence concerning the relationship between other health outcomes and oil and gas operations.” The CDPHE authors then ranked a majority of the findings in the 12 studies they reviewed as “low quality, primarily due to limitations of the study designs that make it difficult to establish clear links between exposures to substances emitted directly from oil and gas and the outcomes evaluated.”
While CDPHE did call for additional studies, they argued that the studies needed to be “higher quality” given that “[s]tudies of populations living near oil and gas operations provide limited evidence of the possibility for harmful health effects. This needs to be confirmed or disputed with higher quality studies,” CDHPE argued.
CDPHE also noted that another hurdle for future studies is designing a research method that accounts for the difficulties in separating out the difference in possible sources between industry and non-industry-related sourcing. According to CDPHE, an individual’s total exposure “may reflect multiple substances from both oil and gas and non-oil and gas sources from indoor and outdoor environments. For example, VOCs can be emitted from a variety of sources including oil and gas, other industrial operations, vehicle traffic and everyday consumer products such as nail polish, detergents, sealants, aerosol antiperspirants and deodorants.”
While the Denver Post coverage points to the dangers of living close to oil and gas operations citing the tragic events that took place in Firestone last year, it’s important to provide an accurate representation of the commitment and dedication industry took in the aftermath of the tragedy.
Earlier this year, the COGCC passed new and stringent regulations pertaining to flowline safety and oversight following a months-long collaborative process between government and industry. These news rules bolster the state’s 811 “Call Before You Dig” safety program and also adds in additional requirements for testing, installing and managing flowlines. As assets change hands, it also requires operators to provide information about existing lines to the new owners.
Industry also acted swiftly in the immediate aftermath – Anadarko shut down nearly 3,000 operated vertical wells in the region and inspected each and every one before bringing them back online. The company also permanently removed one-inch return lines from these wells. The state too, acted quickly, with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper issuing an order that industry inspect thousands of wells and pipelines, which was done within two months. Importantly, these early efforts were recognized by the Denver Post editorial board itself, which editorialized on May 3 stating, “Thankfully, industry and government officials are responding with appropriate levels of urgency and concern.”
While Prop 112 would not have prevented what happened in Firestone, because the accident was related to a well that was in existence years before urban encroachment occurred, the right response is to continue working in a collaborative manner to ensure all of the lessons learned are addressed so that residents can feel safe and secure in their homes and neighborhoods.
The Ozone Issue Gets Tossed In Without Any Context
There’s a casual one paragraph reference to Colorado’s ozone challenges that is also tossed into Denver Post’s article without providing any context.
In fact, Colorado’ oil and gas industry has been a leader in addressing an issue that Colorado elected officials on both sides of the aisle have discussed at length.
Western communities face particular difficulty in achieving attainment with federal ozone standards, which are continually revised down every few years, due to geographical factors like mountainous topography as well as imported air pollution or background ozone from other states and countries. Will Allison, director of the CDPHE’s Air Pollution Control Division, conceded that “30 to 50 percent of the ozone that we’re monitoring is background and beyond our control” and that “despite the air pollution challenges associated with increasing population, our ozone levels have improved over time,” even with increasing oil and natural gas production.
Notwithstanding these additional challenges, Colorado’s energy industry has continually taken steps to reduce ozone levels through technological innovation and by adopting new regulatory schemes. In fact, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) were cut in half over a six-year timeframe even as production in the state quadrupled.
“Over the past six years, the state’s oil and gas industry nearly halved its emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in the Metro Denver and North Front Range Ozone Nonattainment Area, while oil production quadrupled statewide. Oil and gas emissions of VOCs decreased from 280 to 154 tons-per-day between 2011 and 2017.”
The anecdotal mentions
The article also cites anecdotes made by those closely associated with Prop 112 campaign, most notably:
“Stacy Lambright, who lives near a producing well pad in her North Creek Farms neighborhood in Thornton, said she and her children began experiencing nose bleeds and headaches right around the time a subcontractor found a leaking flow line at the site nearly three years ago. That discovery triggered a remediation effort that resulted in the excavation and treatment of 3,500 cubic yards of soil and the removal of 3,000 barrels of groundwater, which contained elevated levels of benzene. A children’s playground sits just a few hundred feet away from the well pad.”
In a Colorado Independent interview following her complaint, Lambright admitted that COGCC “did respond quickly to her complaint, and set up a remediation plan with the new owner.” The complaint, filed in June 2016, concluded with COGCC noting for a “noise” and “onsite inspection request” by Lambright that, “Upon inspection the only possible COGCC rule violation observed was the stormwater issue which was addressed in the inspection, and this was also brought to the attention of KPK.” K.P. Kauffman or KPK, had taken over the site from Synergy Resources Corporation, now known as SRC.
Lambright has parlayed that complaint into a record of activism. As a “Moms Clean Air Force” featured profile and activist, Lambright held press conferences before the complaint was filed, and was prominently featured in a speech by U.S. Rep. Jared Polis on the House floor in February 2017.
None of which is mentioned by the Denver Post.
The piece also quotes Commerce City resident Susan Noble, who says energy companies are seeking permits for nearly 200 wells at multiple well pads within just a mile or two of her Reunion neighborhood. “Parents are especially concerned about their children’s and future children’s health — kids are most susceptible to the VOC emissions from these sites — and are talking about moving away,” she said. “Heavy petrochemical activity doesn’t belong near or in residential areas.”
The latest CDPHE data show the state’s VOC emissions have plummeted by nearly half in just six years, even as oil production in the state quadrupled. And as mentioned earlier, CDPHE data based on 10,000 air samples near significant oil and gas development in the state found emissions were “safe,” even for sensitive populations, which includes children.
All this noted, it is important to understand that use of anecdotes and focus on young children have long been staples of the anti-fracking activist playbook. This deliberate strategy focused on making emotional arguments against development is designed to maximize media attention. The tactic was laid out in a 2012 memo entitled “Public Health Dimensions of Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing: Knowledge, Obstacles, Tactics, and Opportunities” that was authored by Seth Shonkoff, the executive director of an Ithaca, N.Y.-based group called Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSEHE). That group has advocated against oil and gas development for years.
A Quick Look at Who Supports 112 vs. Who Opposes It
If the intentions behind Prop 112 were ever in question, let’s take a quick look at the measure’s top out of state anti-fossil fuel supporters.
As we already mentioned, Steingraber is a fan, and compared Colorado’s efforts to those she undertook in New York.
So is Josh Fox, the director of the thoroughly debunked “Gasland” documentary, which helped galvanize national anti-fracking sentiment. Fox was hosted by Colorado Rising, the group sponsoring Prop 112, when he performed his one-man play, “The Truth Has Changed” last month in Boulder. After his performance, he addressed the crowd saying, “Let’s do this! Let’s ban fracking in Colorado!” and then tweeted a picture at Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate, Jared Polis.
“Hey @jaredpolis– These great folks in Boulder last night at THE TRUTH HAS CHANGED want you to support the truth and vote yes on the fracking #proposition112 to keep our kids safe! #frackingharms. @RepJaredPolis @ColoradoRising @OurRevolution,” wrote Fox.
But that’s not all. None other than famed environmental activist Bill McKibben will be traveling to Colorado later this week to take part in a dinner reception and auction in support Prop 112. According to the invite,
“Bill and local organizers of Proposition 112 will speak about the significance of this grassroots effort, which will protect all Colorado communities against fracking and creates a precedent for action across the nation. If Prop 112 is successful, this will be the biggest environmental action in the country this year.”
Also appearing this week in the opinion section of the Denver Post is former director of the U.S. NASA Goddard Space Institute and climate change activist, James Hansen. Hansen, too, is a notable activist that has teamed up with national environmental groups to sue the state of Colorado, has backed climate lawsuits brought by Our Childrens’ Trust, and praised an anti-Keystone XL pipeline saboteur as a “hero.”
Hollywood actor and anti-fracking activist Mark Ruffalo has also said of Prop 112,
“This will be the biggest environmental and public safety issue on the ballot in the nation this year. And a win here is not just a win for Colorado, it’s a win for people power everywhere.”
Colorado Rising continually tries to frame Prop 112 as a common-sense regulation, but a quick check on the anti-fracking activist company the group keeps shows a different end goal.
While proponents of Prop 112 tend to be relegated to the activist crowd, who opposes it?
Well, just about everyone.
Even Colorado’s most prominent Democrats have called the measure too extreme. Gov. John Hickenlooper and former state attorney general Ken Salazar are against it. So is former Democratic Governor Bill Ritter, who currently heads up Colorado State University’s Center for the New Energy Economy. Former Denver Mayor Wellington Webb took part in a Mayors Against Proposition 112 rally at the State House yesterday, telling the crowds:
“I have lived in Greeley going to school, I have lived in Sterling going to school, and I can also tell you that we in Colorado – the Colorado way – is not to set aside specific industries to go after because we don’t like them. We need to be supportive of oil and gas because of what they provide in terms of energy independence, in terms of providing tax money we use in our local communities… We need to be voting no on 112, because much of that tax money goes to our schools, and if anybody needs more tax money, it’s our schools.”
Even U.S. Rep. Jared Polis is against 112. This is the same Jared Polis who sponsored a similar setback measure a few years ago and has had no qualms about touting his pro-environmentalist policies while serving in Congress.
All told, opposition to Prop 112 is every bit as robust as the overwhelming evidence that the measure would be a massive net negative for Colorado. Unfortunately, the Denver Post’s most recent coverage fails to accurately convey that reality due to some gaping holes in its reporting.