The health report released by the state’s principal Luddite agencies — the COGCC and the CDPHE — a couple weeks ago suggests how far gone we are in official analytical impotence. The report, unveiled in a press conference staged to resemble a victory announcement, was revealing in only one aspect — that it revealed very little beyond the tendentious philosophical inclinations of the career bureaucrats populating those agencies.
It is one thing when politicians engage in such antics — one expects demagoguery from those for whom demagoguery is part of the job description — but it is rather more irksome when state agencies join in on the fun and use their considerable appointed powers in the service of agenda-advancement. Not surprising or unexpected, and certainly not unusual mind you, but irksome nonetheless.
So what was in this report? Well, what was advertised as being in the report was a finding backing up the fanatic’s claims that oil and gas development causes a host of generic health problems. What the report actually says is considerably less than that, which must have been awfully disappointing to the fanatical anti-energy activist types, many of whom are now employed by the state, who have spent years desperately trying to uncover some snippet of evidence that oil and gas development is the worst thing to happen since the Great Flood.
The report essentially informs us that during specific moments when specific activities could result in higher-than-usual emissions — such as during flow-back operations in the well completion stage — if one happens to be present in the worst-possible geographical location, at the worst possible time, and during worst-case weather conditions, then that hapless individual MAY experience some minimal short-term health impacts. Perhaps.
It didn’t specifically say if the risk was more clearly defined if the unfortunate individual happened to be vaping or eating gluten at the time, but that sort of extrapolation would presumably be encouraged.
What’s more, the report’s findings came about not based on actual, real-world data, but on modelling using hypothetical people near hypothetical oil and gas facilities under conditions that the report says occurred “only rarely in the simulations.” The reason for this was explained by state toxicologist Kristy Richardson, who, under questioning from frustrated reporters trying to figure out what the hell they were supposed to distill from all this, admitted that “It’s unlikely that people would experience these worst-care scenarios” because “we have never measured levels that are above our health-based guideline values.” Even the department’s press release states that “the study is not based on actual health impacts… or on measured concentrations in the air surrounding the well pad.” In other words, they couldn’t find the data to back up their assertions so they modeled it instead.
Now if you or I were to look at a report like this, our reaction would be something on the order of relief at the official recognition that our primary economic activity in the state is not, in fact, making the air fatally noxious, that even minor short term irritations are dependent on a great number of stars unluckily aligning in a particularly unlikely way.
In contrast, here is how the COGCC and CDPHE characterized it: “This study just reinforces what we already know; we need to minimize emissions from oil and gas sources.”
Well what else could they do? The data they did have failed to back up their political position — the last CDPHE-published study using actual data (30,000 air samples collected from dozens of real, not hypothetical, oil and gas sites around the state) showed that concentrations of emission at 500 feet were 60 to 10,000 times below the agencies own health guideline values. Even their hypothetical modelling did not prove elastic enough to generate a favorable outcome. So demagoguery was the only bullet left.
The trouble comes when demagoguery foments policy, as the prejudicial nature of the official spin of the report was designed to justify. Already, the COGCC let it be known that based on the findings, they were going to review all oil and gas permits out to 2,000 feet from a habitable building under the same scrutiny it was for those out to 1,500 ft. And of course, key state legislators have already hinted at another salvo of bills to help dismantle the industry, under the aegis of this report.
Maybe all public policy should be made by that standard; for instance, perhaps we should re-think funding for schools which teach mathematics and physics, as the information could, potentially, be used by a student to create a bomb? Or ban any further preservation of state parks owing to the possibility of someone tripping over a tree root and falling into the jaws of a ravenous bear.
This, friends, is where our state has found itself in terms of energy policy.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver.