Four Things to Know About the Denver Post’s Latest Article on Emissions in Greeley
Oil and natural gas emissions have been a key topic of discussion in Colorado, especially as the state addresses its unique ozone situation and continues to study the health of residents living near development. Yet, one reporter at one of the state’s most respected media outlets continues to misrepresent the facts on the industry’s emissions and the impacts – or more accurately, lack of impacts – they are having on local communities.
The Denver Post’s Bruce Finely has struck again, this time with an article on benzene emissions near a school in Greeley, Colo. In what has become commonplace for Finley’s articles, he once again buries key facts, fails to supply needed context, and treats activists as neutral pundits.
Here are four key things to know about Finley’s latest oil and natural gas hit piece:
Fact 1: Colorado health officials have said it is “absolutely safe” for kids to be at school.
To Finley’s credit, this fact is included in the article – but it was buried near the end of the story in the 21st paragraph (until the Denver Post decided to update it), despite being one of the most important facts to include and one of the first questions parents likely asked. As Greeley-Evans School District 6 spokeswoman Theresa Myers explained:
“What we want, and need is for our students to be safe. We believe they are at this time. We are taking our guidance from the Colorado health officials. They are telling us they believe it is absolutely safe for those kids to be in the school.” (emphasis added)
What’s also buried throughout the story is the level of exposure, another piece of information pertinent to making a determination as to the well being of the children, faculty and staff of the school. It’s only after mentioning the climate summit in Madrid and emphasizing that the state declined to shut down nearby wells, that Finley final explains that Colorado officials only observed elevated levels of benzene near the school “over a 45-minute period,” and:
“There’s no indication from current data of a pattern of elevated benzene pollution.”
In other words, any exposure that may have occurred appears to be minimal and no long-term emissions issues have been identified, an important piece of context for readers seeing headlines about an “elevated level of cancer-causing benzene” near schools.
Fact 2: Continued testing at nearby well sites have not shown elevated emissions.
While not nearly as buried as the above, it’s only after Finley appears to criticize the state for not shutting down wells operated by Extraction Oil & Gas, that he explains that the company has conducted its own testing since being notified of the November emissions spike and has found levels are well below the threshold at which health impacts might occur.
In fact, Extraction spokesman Brian Cain explained that the company’s continuous monitoring has “seen no exceedances during the period we’ve been testing” and that there have been “no results above 1 part per billion.”
To recap, despite one of the first things readers see in the article being that officials “have declined to shut down these Extraction Oil and Gas wells,” testing shows that at this point there hasn’t been a clear source identified for the one-time spike nor does there appear to be any ongoing issues that would warrant such actions. As Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s John Putman explained:
“If you were to request that something be shut down, you’d need to make sure you knew it was the source of the emissions.”
Extraction also pledged to work with state agencies, share data, and do everything they could to find the source of emissions and protect students, including “coordinating a longer-term air monitoring plan to ensure that the air quality in this area is well understood.”
Fact 3: The Denver Post inaccurately describes Colorado’s state health report.
The situation in Greeley comes just two months after the state of Colorado published its long-awaited health report on oil and natural gas production. Finley was given a leaked copy of that report before any other reporter, releasing an article that was quickly criticized for its misleading headline (later corrected) and inaccurate portrayal of the report.
Despite this, Finley has once again left out important context in his latest discussion on the report, claiming:
“The latest state study on oil and gas industry health impacts found air emissions can hurt people at distances up to 2,000 feet from wells, depending on wind.”
There are a couple problems with this sentence.
First, it’s a lot more complicated than just “depending on the wind.” What the state actually said is that there are only health risks during the “worst-case” scenarios which happen during a rare combination of events including the distance from development, the stage of production, and a whole host of weather factors.
Second, the state specifically explains that the study “does not definitively dictate a setback,” and while it found “risk of negative short-term health impacts” at distances up to 2,000 feet, it also didn’t “account for natural exposure or ‘background exposure.’” In fact, the state is clear that the study “is not based on actual health impacts people have reported from oil and gas operations or on measured concentrations in the air surrounding the well pad.”
Finley’s overly-broad phrase of “hurt people” could be interpreted to mean literally anything, but the state was much more specific, saying there was a “quite infrequent” risk of low-impact issues like headaches and dizziness.
Fact 4: Finley failed to identify his source’s “Keep It In the Ground” affiliations.
Finley quotes a letter to Governor Polis written by a “Greeley parent” that calls for the well sites to be shut in before readers find out that the students’ safety was not in jeopardy (in the original version published by the Denver Post). But while Patricia Nelson is a parent, she is hardly a random or unbiased source and her son doesn’t even attend the school near where the emissions spike occurred.
Nelson has been vocally opposed to the well development in the community for years (and quoted on that in the Denver Post previously) and has actively worked with “Keep It In the Ground” groups like Colorado Rising and Our Climate Voices to shut down oil and natural gas production.
Both the state and the oil and natural gas industry are working together to find out what caused the spike in benzene emissions in November. Fortunately, continued monitoring has demonstrated the incident was not a part of a long-term pattern of exposure and as such, it continues to be safe for students, faculty and staff to attend school as usual. Finley’s decision to bury such important information does little more than spread unnecessary fear and take away from the collaborative effort taking place to ensure the safety and well-being of nearby residents.