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June 15, 2016 11:46 AM UTC

Millions in U.S. at Elevated Health Risk from Oil and Gas

  • by: PKolbenschlag

(Promoted by Colorado Pols)

Over twelve million Americans are at increased risk of cancer and other adverse health impacts from oil and gas development according to a new report that reviews current peer-reviewed science and health studies, and a new mapping tool that allows potentially impacted residents to gauge threat risk.

Using the latest peer-reviewed research into the health impacts attributed to oil and gas air pollution, the map conservatively draws a ½ mile health threat radius around each facility. Within that total area are: 12.4 million people; 11,543 schools and 639 medical facilities; and 184,578 square miles, an area larger than California.

Oil and gas development in Weld County sited between a school and subdivision.

The interactive Oil and Gas Threat Map was developed by Earthworks, which partnered with the Clean Air Task Force in developing the study and tools. CATF simultaneously issued a report: Fossil Fumes.

The report finds that: 238 counties in 21 states face a cancer risk that exceeds EPA’s one-in-a-million threshold level of concern; Combined, these counties have a population of over 9 million people and are mainly located in Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, North Dakota, Pennsylvania and Colorado. Of these counties, 43 face a cancer risk that exceeds one in 250,000, and two counties in West Texas (Gaines and Yoakum) face a cancer risk that exceeds one in 100,000; 32 counties, primarily in Texas and West Virginia, also face a respiratory health risk from toxic air emissions that exceeds EPA’s level of concern (with a hazard index greater than one).

The report comes out as petitions are in the field regarding several ballot measures that would restrict where and how oil and gas development can occur in Colorado. It also comes on the heels of the Colorado released findings from its own air quality study in Garfield County. That study which looked at emissions during well drilling and completion of new wells found the highest level of air pollutants, including known carcinogens, during the “flowback” stage of well completion.

Notably, the team observed higher rates of emission of many volatile organic compounds and methane during flowback operations than during drilling or hydraulic fracturing. Flowback is last in the chain of well completion events, and refers to water and fracking fluids flowing up from the ground after injection of water and chemicals into the well, the process known as hydraulic fracturing.

Methane, a potent greenhouse gas that has been targeted for emission reductions by the state of Colorado and the federal government, was the most abundant compound in measured emissions, with median emissions of 2.0, 2.8, and 40 grams per second (g/s) for drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and flowback activities, respectively. Other emitted VOCs of interest and their overall median emission rates included ethane (median emission rate of 0.31 g/s), propane (0.15 g/s) and other short-chain hydrocarbons that are important constituents of natural gas. They also looked at air toxics such as benzene (0.04 g/s) and toluene (0.27 g/s). Wide ranges of emissions were observed both across activity types and within a given activity.

Of course emissions of toxic and climate killing pollutants do not only occur with new wells. Some wells continue to emit copious amounts of methane and other pollutants during their entire life, even after they are done producing oil or gas for market and are abandoned. And unless industry actively works to prevent leaks and capture the methane and other pollutants, the emissions can and do occur at all stages of oil and gas development, storage, and transport.

And while different wells, different geologies, and different stages of the development and production cycles all have different emission levels, the first stage in allowing citizens a more robust role in their own governance is making good data, studies and information available.

 “The Fossil Fumes report and Earthwork’s Interactive Threat Map will allow concerned citizens to learn the cancer and respiratory risks they face from toxic air pollution from the oil and gas industry,” the report author noted. “Armed with this information, we trust that citizens and communities will demand protective safeguards requiring industry to clean up its act and reduce these serious risks to public health.”

Although Garfield is not one of the most at-risk counties identified in the Fossil Fumes report, two Colorado counties are on that list: Weld and La Plata.

In La Plata County, there are 3,181 oil and gas facilities. La Plata County also has the highest respiratory health risk in Colorado. Within the half mile threat radius of these facilities there are: ­ 17,605 people ­ more than 34% of the La Plata County population; 2,719 Latino people­ more than 40% of the county’s Latino population; and  4 schools.

“Vital for Colorado” is one of the dozens of oil and gas funded advocacy and astroturf firms sprouting up like noxious weeds on a well pad in the Colorado gaspatch.

In Weld County the most impacted population are Latinos, fully 70% of whom live within the highest risk area. And as the data becomes more certain that the public health impacts from oil and development are real, harmful, and significant, expect the shrill pitch of the industry defenders to rise in volume.

But despite massive amounts of oil and gas money being pumped into public relations pitches, ballot campaigns, and astroturfing Colorado communities—a reckoning is coming. Or more specifically regulation: both the U.S. EPA and the Bureau of Land Management have recently completed or are finalizing new rules to limit methane emissions from gas wells. Of course the industry has been fighting those too, even as it brags about all its (often compelled) efforts to clean up its act and limit emissions.

Apparently industry hopes that enough spin, smoke, and mirrors that somehow impacted communities’ attention can be distracted from understanding the dirty, toxic nature of this intrusive activity. But there will be no end to the volatile Fracking Wars or the millions oil and gas lobby groups will have to keep spending in waging them, until local communities and Colorado citizens are given the lawful ability to direct this highly impactful, dirty and industrial activity in our midst.


3 thoughts on “Millions in U.S. at Elevated Health Risk from Oil and Gas

  1. Weld County right now is considering allowing Wells to be drilled next to Bella Romero Elementary School. Concerned residents and parents have met with the School Board. We don't want the last gasp of the area's oil and gas industries to leave a generation of young Greeley kids gasping for air.

  2. Find and sign the petition to get the Community Rights Amendment on the November ballot.


    Replace the language in the state constitution that the SC relied on to tell Longmont and Ft Collins that they had no right to protect the health and welfare of their residents from proximate fracking pollution …. that that right was reserved to the State (O&G interests) and subsequently disregarded.

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