Energy boom contributes to regional haze problems and potential health impacts
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — Colorado officials took another small step to address growing public concerns about the impacts of the state’s energy boom by announcing a $1.3 million study of emissions from oil and gas drilling operations.
According to a press release from the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, the study will help provide information about how oil and gas emissions behave, how they travel and their characteristics in areas along the northern Front Range.
A second phase would assess possible health effects using data collected in the first phase. Testimony at this week’s Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rulemaking hearing reinforced the views of experts for both industry and the conservation community that more and better science is needed related to oil and gas emissions.
A NOAA study published last spring found that oil and gas drilling operations in Weld County are probably leaking twice as much methane into the atmosphere as previously estimated. Methane is a potent heat-trapping greenhouse gas, and some recent studies suggest that total methane leakage from oil and gas drilling offsets a significant chunk of the supposed reductions in greenhouse gas emissions achieved by switching from coal to natural gas.
There is also evidence indicating that emissions of toxic benzene, a known carcinogen, have been underestimated. Benzene is tracked and regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“This study marks another important step in our aggressive efforts to ensure oil and gas development is conducted with the highest standards of environmental protection,” said Colorado Department of Natural Resources executive director Mike King. “We know that strong regulation and strong science build public confidence in this economically critical industry, one that provides thousands of jobs and energy that we all depend upon every day.”
State officials have been touting a string of recent regulations, but at the same time, sued the city of Longmont when it decided to adopt strict regulations reflecting the desire of city residents to protect themselves from hazardous drilling chemicals and byproducts.
Recently adopted state regulations include rules requiring the disclosure of chemicals used in fracking fluids, and a public water quality database, but conservation and community activists want even more protection from the potentially harmful effects of intensive energy development.
“We are working with all stakeholders to find the careful balance that protects the public and addresses legitimate concerns while ensuring that the oil and gas resources necessary to our economy can be safely developed,” said Dr. Chris Urbina, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment will contract with Colorado State University to conduct the study. It would be similar to an ongoing CSU-led study of oil and gas emissions in Garfield County. The first phase of the study is projected to cover a three-year period from July 2013 through June 2016. A second phase to develop a health risk assessment would begin in January of 2016.
As part of his budget request to the Joint Budget Committee, Governor Hickenlooper will seek approval for $1.3 million from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s Environmental Response Fund to provide initial funding for the project.