Coloradans who live close to oil and gas operations may suffer health impacts, but only under rare situations and under the worst-case scenarios, says a new state-commissioned study.
Both sides of the oil and gas war claim the study backs up their assertions: Either that oil and gas activity impacts public health (from the environmentalists) or that it doesn't (from the industry).
The 380-page study -- “Human Health Risk Assessment for Oil & Gas Operations in Colorado” -- was commissioned by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).
It was conducted by ICF International, which develops models for monitoring oil and gas emissions.
“During short-term exposure, worst-case weather conditions, peak emissions and especially during flowback, there may be a risk of health impacts from oil and gas activity,” said state toxicologist Kristy Richardson of the CDPHE.
Those risks take place at sites located 300 to 2,000 feet from occupied buildings (schools, homes and hospitals, for example) and the health effects -- such as headaches, dizziness and respiratory, eye and skin irritation -- are consistent with those reported to the CDPHE and COGCC, state officials said during a Thursday news conference.
The worst-case conditions, as defined by the two agencies, including low-speed wind, when volatile organic compounds can pool, and in low-level areas, such as the bottom of a hill. Physical activity also plays a role: someone out for a run may be at greater risk than someone sleeping, for example.
While the risks may be low, the COGCC reacted by announcing immediate action based on the findings.
COGCC Executive Director Jeff Robbins said the agency will immediately apply its Director’s Objective Criteria on permits for wells located between 1,500 to 2,000 feet from occupied buildings. Currently, permit applications under 1,500 feet are reviewed under those criteria, which act as interim guidelines for permit approval while the COGCC completes permanent rulemaking, expected sometime next year.
There are 39 permit applications that will be impacted by that decision.
The study comes at a time when the COGCC and CDPHE are already engaged in lengthy rulemaking tied to the passage of Senate Bill 19-181, the law that requires oil and gas permits to be evaluated to take into consideration public health and safety and impacts on the environment and wildlife.
The study applies only to wells that are in pre-production, and during the most dangerous phase of pre-production, known as flowback, and does not apply to wells already producing oil and natural gas.
The study collected more than 5,000 samples in Garfield and the northern Front Range counties, and reported the health risks are higher in the Front Range than on the Western Slope.
Flowback is part of the fracking process; it takes place when high-pressure water is injected into shale, mixed with fracking chemicals, and then withdrawn back to the surface.
John Putnam, who heads the environmental programs at CDPHE, said the study confirms prior information. There isn’t an “enhanced risk of cancer,” he told reporters Thursday, but an infrequent risk of short-term effects.
The study is the first of its kind because it "used actual emissions data to model potential exposure and health risks,” Putnam said.
A news conference hosted by oil and gas trade groups blasted the study for using modeling rather than actual data from air monitoring of emissions, but also praised it for being a good first step in examining impacts of oil and gas on public health, which they said are "none."
Lynn Granger, executive director of the American Petroleum Institute's Colorado division, said the industry relies on actual monitoring, data and science. "There are robust standards in place to protect public health and safety," she said.
The study bears out what the industry has been saying, added Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. "There are no long-term health impacts" from oil and gas development, he said.
The trade groups brought in two toxicologists to refute the study's methodology as indicative of real impacts.
Michael Lumpkin of CTEH, an environmental consulting firm, said the study used computer simulation that were not intended to show causation. "The study has given us direction on potential health effects, not actual ones," he said.
Tami McMullin, a former Colorado state toxicologist who worked on previous CDPHE studies on those impacts, said the study did not prove there were health risks.
"These are conservative estimates," McMullln, who also works for CTEH, said. "We don't see the long-term health effects" the study indicates, she said, adding that state policymakers shouldn't be making decisions based on modeling. Those decisions should be made on actual data, but "it's a good first step," McMullin said.
The toxicologists also disagreed with the links between 47 identified volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and the symptoms identified with exposure.
McMullin said the authors of a scientific journal article on the study did not mention the symptoms mentioned Thursday by the CDPHE and COGCC. "There's no direct correlation," she said. Lumpkin added that the VOCs in the model don't cause the symptoms except at very high levels of exposure. The study shows there is a need for a closer look, he said.
Meanwhile, environmental groups and Democratic state lawmakers said the study's results call for immediate action.
Colorado Rising, which backed last year's failed attempt to pass a measure greatly restricting Colorado oil and gas development, said the study "did not calculate cancer risks for several chemicals in our assessment (styrene, isoprene, and ethylbenzene) classified by IARC or EPA as 'possible' or 'probable' human carcinogens, but for which human exposure-response models were not available."
In a statement, Colorado Rising spokeswoman Anne Lee Foster said ethylbenzene is "almost exclusively emitted by oil and gas and is a known carcinogen. Dozens of Front Range residents have documented extremely high levels of ethylbenzene in their blood."
The Colorado branch of the Sierra Club, in a statement, called for a moratorium on permits near homes, schools and parks until rulemaking is completed.
“The study released today by the state of Colorado confirms what Coloradans living near oil and gas drilling have known for years," said Jim Alexee. "We know now more than ever that continuing to let the oil and gas industry operate business-as-usual is hurting Coloradans’ health and safety. The COGCC must adopt strong new rules to protect Coloradans from the dangers of fracking and drilling, and fully implement the reforms passed by our state leaders in the legislature. COGCC should also consider deferring any permit approvals near homes, schools, and parks in our communities until new protections are put in place.”
Colorado state Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, Democrat of Boulder, one of the co-sponsors of SB 181, said he is considering legislation in 2020 to require more studies and to require increased "regional air monitoring to better understand the overall impact of oil and gas development on Colorado’s air quality."
He called on the COGCC to "deploy increased real-time air monitoring near all existing wells that are near people, especially sites that are within 2,000 feet of homes," to delay action on permits for wells within 2,000 feet of homes until rulemaking is done, and to support his proposed legislation.
State Speaker of the House KC Becker, D-Boulder, another co-sponsor of SB 181, added that the study highlights the "immediate need for the state to address air quality by increasing monitoring, expediting rulemaking, and conducting a robust health impact study to fully understand how oil and gas operations are affecting public health."