Oil and gas groups block briefing for officials on health impacts of drilling

Commission agrees to postpone presentation ahead of key health and safety rulemaking

Fracking infrastructure is pictured through playground equipment at the Bella Romero Academy in Greeley on June 24, 2020. (Andy Bosselman for Colorado Newsline)

Colorado’s five new oil and gas commissioners were set to hear a presentation from state officials on the health impacts of drilling this week — but oil and gas interest groups objected, and the commission agreed to cancel the briefing.

Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission chair Jeff Robbins noted the decision at the beginning of an Aug. 18 hearing, when commissioners were scheduled to be briefed by Kristy Richardson, Colorado’s state toxicologist, on the results of an extensive state-sponsored public-health study completed last year. The study concluded that under “worst-case” conditions, oil and gas drilling can cause negative health impacts to nearby residents at distances up to 2,000 feet.

“We have received several objections to us hearing from Ms. Richardson,” Robbins said. “While we may still make room for Ms. Richardson to (give) testimony to us, we’re not going to do that this morning.”

The canceled briefing, which would have offered the COGCC’s newly-appointed, full-time commissioners the chance to learn about the study’s findings and pose questions to Richardson on the health impacts of oil and gas, comes just days before the body is set to begin a major overhaul of state drilling regulations. The COGCC’s “Mission Change” rulemaking — required by Senate Bill 19-181, a landmark package of oil and gas reforms passed by the state legislature last year — is expected to bring changes to everything from the agency’s permitting process and siting requirements to inspection protocols and waste-management procedures.

Its name refers to a small but pivotal change to Colorado law made by SB-181, removing language that directed the COGCC to “foster” oil and gas development, replacing it with a mandate to “regulate” development “to protect … public health, safety, and welfare, the environment, and wildlife resources.”

A slide from a planned presentation, which was postponed after pressure from industry groups, by Colorado health officials on the health risks of oil and gas operations. (CDPHE)

The COGCC confirmed to Newsline that the American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group, and representatives of Weld County, home to 90% of Colorado’s oil production, objected to the briefing ahead of next week’s rulemaking.

“API, on behalf of industry, objected, as did Weld County, to having this information presented before the Commission begins the rulemaking,” Robbins said in a statement provided by a COGCC spokesperson. “Out of respect for the process, the presentation was pulled from this morning and we will evaluate whether and when to hear from (the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment) at a later date.”

In a statement provided by API, Lynn Granger, executive director of the group’s Colorado chapter, said that API “fully concurred” with Weld County’s objection to the presentation.

“Its last-minute inclusion would have offered no chance for public comment or reply, and thus would have allowed for only one perspective on an analysis to which we raised significant concerns last fall,” Granger said. “We are grateful to the COGCC for recognizing these concerns, and look forward to continuing good faith conversations into next week’s rulemakings and beyond.”

Landmark 2019 study

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment released its oil and gas health study in October 2019, concluding a long-running saga that originated with the task force on fracking issues convened by former Gov. John Hickenlooper in 2014. As it faced multiple delays and a lengthy peer-review process, activists on both sides of the issue waited in anticipation, and scientists teased the study’s data and methodology as offering the most comprehensive glimpse yet of the possible health impacts of Colorado’s decade-long drilling boom.

The 380-page study concluded that under certain weather and emissions conditions, oil and gas operations released enough toxic gases to pose short-term health risks to humans at every distance it modeled, from 500 feet to 2,000 feet. CDPHE officials note that the study’s modeling is consistent with hundreds of health complaints received by COGCC regulators over the years, in which residents near drilling sites have reported such symptoms as coughing, headaches and nosebleeds.

The report’s conclusions also align with an extensive body of existing research on the topic. In a 2016 analysis published in the scientific journal PLOS One, researchers evaluated nearly 700 peer-reviewed studies on the health impacts of fracking and found that 84% of them “contain findings that indicate public health hazards, elevated risks, or adverse health outcomes.”

CDPHE’s study also found that oil and gas operations posed slightly elevated risks of long-term blood and nervous system impacts at a distance 500 feet, but not at 2,000 feet.

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Current COGCC regulations require new oil and gas wells to adhere to a minimum “setback” distance of 500 feet from single-family homes and 1,000 feet from larger buildings. Multiple environmental and community groups have urged the commission to increase those setback distances during the Mission Change rulemaking.

A spokesperson for Weld County provided Newsline with an Aug. 17 email from County Attorney Bruce Barker to the COGCC’s hearing officer in which Barker argued that presenting commissioners with information on CDPHE’s health study would “perhaps predispose” them toward increasing setbacks.

The scheduled briefing, he wrote, “simply adds salt to the wound of likely prejudicing the Commission with regard to the import of the study as it relates to an historic rulemaking of unprecedented scope.”

Dispute over air-quality modeling

The oil and gas industry downplayed the CDPHE study’s findings upon its release, arguing that because they were based on air samples collected in 2016, they didn’t reflect updated emissions-control technologies employed by many operators.

Industry groups also objected to the study’s reliance on mathematical modeling to estimate a range of potential emissions impacts, and repeated those criticisms in explaining their opposition to Richardson’s presentation on Tuesday.

“We believe that using modeled exposures, rather than scientifically measured air quality data, introduces uncertainties and limitations that may result in erroneous estimates of risk for a population,” Granger said.

A graphic detailing the air-quality modeling process used by CDPHE’s 2019 oil and gas health study. (CDPHE)

Such methodologies, however, are an extremely common tool in air-quality research. Scientists say that without modeling tools to account for an extensive set of variables — time, distance, emissions levels, wind speed, temperature, humidity, topography, human activity and more — millions upon millions of individual samples would need to be collected across a prohibitively long period of time.

A CDPHE spokesperson provided Newsline with a copy of the presentation that Richardson was scheduled to give at Tuesday’s COGCC hearing. It featured a broad overview of the 2019 study’s findings and concluded by noting areas that require further study, like the impacts of short-term spikes in air toxins, the effect of different “operational decisions” on air emissions and other long-term, “cumulative” impacts for people who may live near multiple oil and gas sites.

“Kristy’s presentation is similar to one she’s already given before, and it does not discuss any new content or findings,” CDPHE’s Andrew Bare wrote in an email. “It’s an explanation of the work the state is doing through the Colorado Oil and Gas Health Information and Response program and a review of the current science on the health impacts of oil and gas development.”

“We expect Kristy to be invited back to present at a later date,” he added.