Mountain States

Fact Checking Activist Claims Ahead of Colorado Oil and Gas Bill Hearing

The Colorado State Senate Transportation and Energy Committee is holding a hearing today on SB 181, the newly proposed oil and gas bill that aims to drastically change how the industry is regulated in the state.

Energy In Depth took a first look at the bill, showing how its impacts would be very similar to those of the failed Proposition 112, if not worse.

The hearing is expected to draw huge turnouts from both supporters and those opposed to the bill, as well as intense media attention.  Testimony from the bill’s supporters will likely include unfounded or exaggerated claims, based on previous hearings on anti-industry legislation.  Here are some facts to consider as activists offer up their usual talking points.

CLAIM: Colorado’s oil and gas laws have not been updated for “sixty years.”
FACT: Colorado has passed more than a dozen major rulemakings over the past decade.

House Speaker KC Becker has made this claim several times recently to justify this legislation.  But it’s patently false.  Colorado has passed more than a dozen major rulemakings over the past decade, partnering with industry and environmental stakeholders to reach commonsense solutions that work for everyone. Beyond those actions, even the statute that Becker’s bill would update went through major changes in 2007.   Under then-Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter, lawmakers overhauled the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission with updates that changed the make-up of the panel, expanded water monitoring and increased public disclosure, among other things. Twelve years may seem like a long time to some, but it’s a far cry from the six-decade timeframe that Democrats keep invoking.

CLAIM: Studies show that living near oil and gas wells leads to illness.
FACT: Colorado’s Health Department called many of these studies “low quality” and found “no substantial or moderate evidence for any health effects.”

Anti-fracking activists are known to cite several studies that purport to show harmful impacts from living near oil and gas operations,  as purported evidence of the need for stricter regulations, or even a ban on fracking.  But the data don’t back up their claims, and these studies have glaring errors and shortcomings.  For instance, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) scientists have reviewed 12 relevant epidemiological studies covering 27 different health impacts and found “no substantial or moderate evidence for any health effects.” The department ranked the majority of recent studies claiming to find a link between oil and natural gas activity and adverse health effects 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.”

CLAIM: Colorado’s oil and gas regulations are “broken” and don’t account for health and safety.
FACT: Colorado has some of the strictest regulations in the nation.

Similarly, anti-fracking activists paint Colorado’s oil and gas regulations—which are viewed by many as the strongest in the country—as being weak or ineffective. In reality, the state’s Oil and Gas Health Information and Response  Program  takes an active role in monitoring air quality and responding to complaints by citizens – often sending CDPHE staff into the field to conduct further testing.  Further, a comprehensive 2017 CDPHE report examined 10,000 air samples close to “substantial” oil and natural gas operations, finding “safe” levels of emissions and low risks of harmful health effects, concluding the “results…do not indicate the need for immediate public health action.” An updated report from CDPHE that encompasses newer data was due for release last summer, but has been delayed several times since then.  Perhaps legislators should be armed with CDPHE’s most recent assessments before voting on a bill about health and safety?

CLAIM: The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has never denied a permit.
FACT: Yes, it has.

During the Proposition 112 campaign and in its aftermath, activists were quoted in media reports saying the COGCC has “never denied a permit.”  The agency dispelled this myth during its January meeting.  “I think that’s an inaccurate statement for several reasons, and the most obvious is shown here in the staff report because there is a column for rejected permits, there is a column for withdrawn permits, a column for incomplete permits, which has a significant number in all of them,” Democratic Commissioner Howard Boigon said. “My understanding is the process is a long and complex one and permit applications are often returned to operators or are negotiated with operators so that they include conditions of approval that ultimately allow permits to be approved and that some permits are, in fact, rejected. But I think it’s important that we maintain public trust in our operations to address the issue of how we deal with permit applications.” And according to COGCC’s most recent staff report, the agency rejected 487 permit applications in 2018 in addition to 847 applications that were withdrawn. 

CLAIM: Blood tests show oil and gas development is responsible for elevated VOC levels.
FACT: Colorado health regulators discourage the tests that activists cite to justify this claim.

This claim got attention last year when an Erie mom testified in front of the COGCC that oil and gas wells close to her neighborhood were the cause of elevated substances found in her son’s blood. Turns out, the doctor who performed the blood test wasn’t really a physician, but a Registered Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine.  N.M.D.s are “not permitted to treat children less than two years of age or engage in or perform the practice of medicine, surgery, or any other form of healing except as authorized by this article.”  State officials publicly discouraged testing blood for volatile organic compounds after the initial claims were made and interest started to build in the practice. “VOCs like we’re talking about, things like benzene, there’s lots of different sources for them,” CDPHE’s chief toxicologist, Dr. Mike Van Dyke told Denver7. “So when we get a blood test back, we’re not sure if this person is exposed from an oil and gas operation [or] they’re exposed from driving their car into their garage, increasing the benzene level in their home.” CDPHE oil and gas liaison Sean Hackett stated during a Garfield County Energy Advisory Board meeting that, “Air monitoring around those oil and gas sites really is the best approach.”

CLAIM: American Lung Association air quality reports gave “Fort Collins an ‘F’ for air quality, and oil and gas causing illnesses.”
FACT: Colorado air regulators have called ALA’s reports “inaccurate.”

The American Lung Association’s annual air quality reports have long been debunked not only by Energy In Depth, but by state air regulatorsEPA officials, and the local news media. And in 2014, the CDPHE came right out and warned that the  air quality report card was “both inaccurate and misrepresents air quality in Colorado.”

CLAIM: Natural gas is bad for the environment.
FACT: Natural gas is why the United States leads the world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

U.S. government data show this is simply incorrect.  The wide adoption of natural gas as a baseload energy source is the main reason the United States has been able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels not seen since the early 1990s, despite an expanding economy.  Methane emissions tend to be a main concern for activists, but EPA data show that in 2017, methane emissions decreased by 8 percent while natural gas and oil production both increased.  And since 2005, total CO2 emissions decreased by nearly 14 percent while oil and natural gas production increased more than 80 percent and 51 percent, respectively.

CLAIM: Fracking causes Colorado’s elevated ozone levels.
FACT: Out of state sources are the primary driver of Colorado’s ozone.

Colorado faces distinct challenges when it comes to ozone.  Topography, elevation and weather all have an impact on the state’s elevated levels.  Those factors also exacerbate the background ozone that travels into the region from outside sources like China.  A 2017 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study “found that increased pollution from Asia, which has tripled its nitrogen oxide emissions since 1990, is to blame for the persistence of smog in the West, despite American laws reducing the smog-forming chemicals coming from automobile tailpipes and factories.”  Another recent study found that 70-75 percent of Denver’s ozone is due to sources that originate from out of state.   Further, a 2016 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study found that oil and gas emissions account for an average of only 17 percent of daily VOCs that create ground level ozone.  All the while, Colorado’s oil and gas industry is doing its part to address the ozone issue.  Industry has halved its emissions of VOCs in the Denver area over the past six years, during a time when production quadrupled statewide.

This is a developing story., Check back here and on Twitter at @EIDMtnStates throughout the day for updates.

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