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Hearings on setbacks resumed today and will continue through tomorrow. I listened to the livestream as much as I could. It’s very difficult to hear witnesses’ names and organizations so I include names where I can and I try to be as accurate as possible. I did not hear all of today’s witnesses. What I bring you here are some highlights from today’s testimonies.
The afternoon hearing featured an interesting debate about the McKenzie Study — aka the Colorado School of Public Health study — aka the Battlement Mesa HIA. <drama sting — dun-dun-dun>
Background: The McKenzie Study used three years of weekly data collected by Garfield County near the community of Battlement Mesa, after complaints about overpowering odors from nearby drilling sites. The study concluded that people living within a half-mile of an active drilling site were exposed to air pollutants that reached 5 on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Hazard Index – where a score of 1 is the level at which no health effects would be expected. The chemicals contributing to that elevated rate were to trimethylbenzenes, xylenes, and aliphatic hydrocarbons, the study said. The chemicals have been linked to neurological and respiratory problems.
Today Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council, testified as an expert witness that the peer-reviewed McKenzie Study shows adverse health effects of living in close proximity to drilling activities. Industry’s expert witness (a woman whose name I didn’t get) and Dr. Chris Urbina, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, disputed Rotkin-Ellman’s conclusions that the study showed that adverse health effects were specifically related to oil and gas activity and not other pollution factors. Commissioners grilled her about the study’s weaknesses. One-by-one they reiterated skepticism that adverse health effects were caused by drilling and insisted pollution is caused by several factors, what they referred to as a “soup” made up of vehicular emissions and other industries and factors.
While several Commissioners and Director Lepore cross-examined the witness separately they all focused on the need for more studies, to the point of placing more emphasis on the validity of future studies at some later date than the study they were discussing. It’s as though they have a policy that studies can only show the need for more studies. Director Lepore asked Rotkin-Ellman how the dangers involved in not wearing a helmet while biking related to her interpretation of the McKenzie Study. She responded that the study did not factor in helmets and bike riding.
To her credit Rotkin-Ellman insisted repeatedly that the McKenzie Study is a reliable scientific study of the impacts of oil and gas development that exists in the present and should be taken into consideration with regard to the Commissions’ decision on setbacks.
In a final exchange, a Commissioner compared the need for more studies to the extensive studies done by pharmaceutical companies before releasing a new drug. Rotkin-Ellman responded that [paraphrase] his comparison to drug testing does not apply to oil & gas development. She said pharmaceutical companies test drugs before they release them to the public and they would be having a very different conversation if they were talking about oil & gas drilling in the future. But wells have been drilled all over the state and are being drilled right now, and the impacts have been and are happening right now, therefore an existing study such as the McKenzie Study should be taken into consideration as it applies to the present discussion on setbacks.
I thought she did an excellent job under a good deal of pressure during cross-examination, including questioning her credentials to make conclusions about the study, as I mentioned previously. Commissioners insisted on using her first name, Miriam while addressing Ms. Rotkin-Ellman because they claimed to have a problem pronouncing her last name. Hard to imagine in the 21st century the Commissioners are unable to pronounce a hyphenated name. It struck me as a way to further try and marginalize her testimony — but that’s just me.
Even though I was listening on the livestream I couldn’t help but sense the ghost of the planned CSU Study in the room during the discussion. The CSU Study will be partially funded by Garfield County and the oil & gas industry, and this future study has been repeatedly endorsed by Director Lepore. The Commissioners didn’t specifically mention the future CSU Study during Rotkin-Ellman’s cross examination but anyone with a brain could see that’s what they were promoting. This was later validated during GarCo Oil & Gas Liaison Kirby Wynn’s testimony when he was encouraged by the COGCC Chair to promote the study in his testimony – and he did. Garfield County leading the way in air quality – hand in glove with industry.
The public health study discussion was followed by a representative of the Homebuilders Association. He testified with his concerns about the value of lots in subdivision where gas drilling already exists and the risks developers face when planning lot locations in subdivisions near gas wells, as well as the devaluation of lots closer to well pads.
Next up, several witnesses in a row spoke about county land use codes and planning. Witnesses represented Boulder, Pitkin, Rio Blanco, Garfield, and Weld counties, among others. It’s hard to describe the various testimonies in a nutshell. As you can imagine Boulder and Pitkin counties prefer to regulate oil & gas development through local land use codes, treating the oil & gas industry the same way they would treat any other developer, and they have taken great pains to design land use codes to allow for local regulation. Kirby Wynn testified for Garfield County where – according to him — everything is fine, fine, fine and we are a model for safe oil & gas development. And then the Chair urged him to talk about the future CSU Study.
A Weld County Commissioner testified that they don’t like the setbacks proposal because they like things the way they are and they don’t want new setbacks or new rules. Her testimony went on and on. She scolded the Commissioners for over-regulating the industry and making it harder for them to do business in Weld, where everything is fine, fine, fine, and they can’t drill enough as far as they’re concerned.
So in essence some county governments (like Weld) want the authority to drill-baby-drill. And some counties (like Pitkin) want the authority to strictly regulate drilling.
Today’s hearing concluded at 7:30 p.m.
Wednesday’s hearing will begin one hour earlier at 8:00 a.m., rather than 9:00 a.m.
For more highlights read: Colorado oil and gas regulators gird for more drilling near homes