What Bruce Finley Failed to Mention About Air Quality
In recent months, Energy In Depth has locked horns with Denver Post environmental writer Bruce Finley for concealing key facts from his readers and portraying oil and gas development in a misleading and alarmist manner. It turns out we weren’t alone.
When Finley failed to mention that Colorado’s hydraulic fracturing disclosure regulations have the same kind of intellectual property protections as federal environmental laws, the Denver Post editorial board corrected the record. The same editorial noted something else that Finley failed to report – a source portrayed as an independent observer is, in fact, an anti-industry activist. This followed some research from the conservative political website Colorado Peak Politics, which found several cases of “Finley enlisting environmental activists as sources for his stories, and painting these individuals as just ordinary citizens.”
But months before that, senior state officials had called Finley’s reporting into question, after he published alarmist allegations from environmental groups under the headline “Relaxed pollution limits eyed.” Leaders of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the state’s Air Pollution Control Division sent an op-ed to the Denver Post, which literally said “here are the facts.” Rather than relax the rules, the officials said they plan to “strengthen” and “enhance” the state’s “already robust regulation of oil and gas air emissions,” and take those regulations “well beyond existing federal and state requirements.”
The rebuke must have had an impact. When Finley published a follow-up story on the air quality issue this month, it said Colorado health officials “are mobilizing to deal with air pollution from oil and gas industry sources” in the lede. But after that, the story went downhill fast, as Finley bobbed and weaved around the facts to build the scariest storyline possible about oil and gas development in Colorado. Here are some of the worst shortcomings.
#1 Exaggerating oil and gas emissions
The second paragraph of Finley’s story blares: “Oil and gas emissions now are the main source of volatile organic compounds in Colorado and the third-largest source of nitrogen oxides…”
So, why are volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) important? Because, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, they can mix together in the lower atmosphere, and with the help of sunlight, react to form ground-level ozone – better known as smog. Yet, for some reason, this fundamental air quality concept is never explained to Finley’s readers. Maybe that’s because once you understand that both VOCs and NOx are needed to create smog, and you look at both together, you get a more complete – and very different – view of the state’s air quality situation.
In the table below, we took the latest emissions inventory from the State of Colorado, and found the VOC and NOx totals from more than 20 anthropogenic – or man-made – sources. When you do the math, oil and gas development is responsible for about 36 percent of anthropogenic smog-forming emissions. As for the remaining 64 percent, major man-made contributors include cars, trucks, woodburning, solvent use, “other point sources” such as factories and power plants, and “non-road” engines like those used in farm and construction equipment.
And, not for nothing, those percentages don’t even include the biggest source of smog-forming emissions, which is the “biogenic” category – meaning trees and other vegetation. To put that into perspective, according to state data, natural sources release more than four times as much VOC and NOx emissions as oil and gas development.
In a news story about emissions and air quality, doesn’t the public deserve to know where those emissions actually come from? In a story about smog-forming emissions and oil and gas development, why conceal the fact that most of the man-made emissions come from other sources besides oil and gas development?
Clearly, emissions from oil and gas development are significant enough to be regulated already under state and federal environmental laws, and state officials are contemplating even more regulations to come. There’s simply no need to exaggerate those emissions for dramatic effect. But that’s exactly what Finley’s carefully crafted copy did.
#2 Ignores studies that challenge activist talking points
Finley’s story continued by pointing out activist groups “are making health fears the focus of campaigns against drilling near communities.” Later, he writes “National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientists found in a 2012 study that methane and benzene emissions from Front Range oil and gas operations may be higher than previously believed.”
But for some reason, Finley failed to mention the activists were caught red-handed distorting NOAA data, and their claims were debunked four separate times by local and state studies.
Last year, activists tried to use NOAA data to claim the Town of Erie, located in both Weld and Boulder counties, had dangerously poor air quality, worse than Houston and Los Angeles. Based on those claims, Erie’s Board of Trustees voted for a moratorium on local oil and gas permitting.
Town officials commissioned two studies on the NOAA data and key environmental and health benchmarks. It turned out Erie has much better air quality than Houston or Los Angeles, and according to the town’s studies, the NOAA 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 a well site in Erie that activists had made the focal point of their campaign. In fact, Washington, D.C.-based pressure group Food & Water Watch even called the location the new “ground zero” of the national movement against hydraulic fracturing.
The CDPHE placed monitors within a few hundred yards of the well site during drilling and the hydraulic fracturing process, and found:
“No significant concentrations were recorded that could be directly attributed to well completion operations at this well pad.”
Those monitors also recorded background levels of various emissions 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,” according to the CDPHE.
The Town of Erie then commissioned its own examination of the CDPHE data – the fourth time the alarmist talking points from Food & Water Watch and other activists were put to the test – and officials even used an environmental consulting firm recommended to them by anti-drilling groups. Once more, the study’s findings directly contradicted the air quality claims of the activists.
Today, Erie’s moratorium on oil and gas development is no longer in effect, because town officials and oil and gas operators negotiated a set of agreements that the Denver Post editorial board called “a thoughtful step forward … to allow drilling to proceed while protecting public health.”
This isn’t the final word on air quality and oil and gas development along Colorado’s Front Range, of course. The CDPHE’s report suggested additional scientific study is warranted, and state health officials are already partnering with Colorado State University on a larger air quality examination.
Finley’s story is built around the fact that anti-drilling groups “are making health fears the focus of campaigns against drilling,” but the track record of the activists goes completely unexamined. Instead, they are allowed to allege anything they want, and the Denver Post’s readers are denied the information they need to decide for themselves whether those claims are credible.
Making this failure even worse is the fact that other reporters at the same newspaper have already shown it’s possible to hold the activists accountable. For example, this June 18 article takes anti-drilling groups to task for making “completely wrong,” “hysterical” and “throw-all-the-spaghetti-against-the-wall” claims about cancer. (Be sure to check out EID’s take on those claims here and here.)
#3 Cherry picks electricity data to conceal environmental benefits of natural gas
Near the end of his story, Finley acknowledges “natural gas can bring broad environmental benefits.” But then he immediately added the following qualification:
“Yet in Colorado, the natural gas share of electricity production decreased to 20.2 percent in 2012 from 22.4 percent in 2004, state energy office data show.”
So, according to Finley, there are environmental benefits attached to natural gas, it’s just that the State of Colorado hasn’t experienced any of them. But when you actually look at all the numbers – not the two data points that Finley apparently cherry picked for his story – a very different story unfolds. Colorado is using more natural gas, and the state is experiencing broad environmental benefits because of it.
The Colorado Energy Office data cited by Finley matches the state-by-state statistics collected by the U.S. Energy Information Administration. So, we downloaded 10 years of EIA data for Colorado and identified some of the key trends in the table below.
The data show a remarkable story unfolding in Colorado, one that Finley inadvertently missed or intentionally ignored.
The first thing to note is Colorado’s electricity production has climbed from roughly 47 million megawatt-hours in 2003 to 54 million megawatt-hours last year – an increase of about 15 percent. During that decade, generation of gas-fired electricity in Colorado grew from 9.2 million megawatt-hours in 2003 to 10.8 million megawatt-hours in 2012 – an increase of 17 percent. When expressed as a share of total electricity production, natural gas started at 20 percent, peaked at 28 percent in 2007, and has since returned to 20 percent. That makes sense because with rising total electricity production, 20 percent translates into more electricity last year than it did a decade ago.
So, what are some of the environmental benefits from using more natural gas to generate electricity? For starters, it makes room on the power grid for more renewable electricity, according to the Colorado Energy Office:
“Natural gas-fired power plants can be brought on and offline and dispatched faster than coal-fired plants. Reducing the time needed to bring power online allows utilities to acquire power from intermittent sources such as wind and solar. This increased generation flexibility ultimately will allow use of more renewable sources, which will further improve air quality, improve human health and reduce environmental impacts.”
In fact, the electricity data from Colorado shows a remarkable increase in renewable electricity generation over the past decade – from 179,000 megawatt-hours to 6.2 million megawatt-hours. That’s a more than 20-fold increase, and it has rocketed renewable electricity’s market share in Colorado from 0.4 percent in 2003 to 12 percent in 2012.
This connection between natural gas and renewables isn’t a secret and it isn’t limited to Colorado. Just ask the people in the business of generating renewable electricity (as opposed to ideologically motivated activists who use renewables as a mere talking point). According to Rhone Resch, the CEO of the Solar Energy Industries Association:
“Natural gas and renewables complement each other very nicely … I think it can happen: In the next 30 years we’re going to have 50 percent renewables and 50 percent natural gas.”
And let’s not forget that President Obama has long considered both natural gas and renewables as “clean energy sources.” In fact, President Obama reaffirmed the connection between natural gas and renewables in a major environmental speech in June:
“Today, we use more clean energy — more renewables and natural gas — which is supporting hundreds of thousands of good jobs. … [Natural gas is] lowering many families’ heat and power bills. And it’s the transition fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution even as our businesses work to develop and then deploy more of the technology required for the even cleaner energy economy of the future.”
So, to recap: Colorado is using more natural gas to generate electricity than it did a decade ago, but Finley’s story suggests the opposite. Not only that, Finley’s story ignores the associated decline in coal-fired electricity, and the increase in renewable generation that natural gas helped make possible.
These are remarkable failures for an experienced environmental writer. And those failures are made even worse by the rest of the story, which exaggerates oil and gas emissions and ignores evidence that challenges the claims of environmental activists.
If people want to read scary stories about the oil and gas industry, there are plenty of activist websites they can visit. They turn to news outlets like the Denver Post for the facts, but sadly, this story sacrificed too many facts for dramatic effect.