Oil and Gas Threat Map now includes public lands


Colorado Oil & Gas Threat Map (static view). Yellow areas show populations threatened by oil & gas development [Source: Oil & Gas Threat Map]

One-third of Colorado’s nearly 67 million acres are designated as public lands, including forests, wilderness areas, wildlife refuges, national parks and monuments, and lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. As much as we appreciate our precious public lands, oil & gas development on public lands has contributed to the increasing public health risks from air pollution and water contamination caused by oil & gas production.

Last June, Earthworks launched the Oil & Gas Threat Map which plots the location of all active oil & gas wells in the United States (except North Carolina and Idaho), then counts the people, schools, and hospitals that live within half-mile of these facilities. The map also features interviews with impacted residents, plus infrared (FLIR) videos of pollution at oil & gas sites and facilities.

“The best available science shows that proximity to oil and gas facilities is linked to health impacts, and it’s most clearly linked at a half-mile or less,” said Alan Septoff, strategic communications director for Earthworks. “The Threat Map doesn’t mean you’re safe if you live farther than a half-mile from a facility, or doomed if you live closer than a half-mile. It does mean science suggests there’s legitimate cause for concern.”

This week The Wilderness Society, along with Earthworks and FracTracker Alliance, added a new online tool to the Oil & Gas Threat Map that identifies populations living close to oil and gas production facilities on public lands in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Wyoming, Montana, and North Dakota. The new map layer shows at least 74,000 people in those six states live within a half-mile of active oil and gas wells located on public lands, increasing their risks of cancer, heart disease and respiratory ailments from toxic emissions containing methane and other cancer-causing chemicals.

“The number of people threatened by air pollution from oil and gas wells on public lands could populate a small city,” said Josh Mantell, carbon management campaign manager for The Wilderness Society. “It’s important to remember that this pollution comes from land and resources that are owned by all of us. That’s why we must ensure that natural gas that is currently wasted, leading to air pollution, is used for energy — not hurting people nearby.”

The areas with the most people affected by oil and gas pollution are in the Western Slope of Colorado, the San Juan Basin in northwestern New Mexico, and the Uintah Basin in eastern Utah, all of which have significant Hispanic populations.

“With these maps, we can clearly see that oil and gas companies are irresponsibly developing our shared public resources and generating pollution that puts Latino communities at risk,” said Maite Arce, Executive Director of the Hispanic Access Foundation.

In Colorado, nearly 16,000 people are at risk from pollution over nearly 1,800 square miles of public lands. There are nine schools and one medical facility within the threat zone.

On Colorado’s west slope, the risk is especially significant in Garfield and Mesa Counties, where public lands and private lands intermix. The thousands of people living in Garfield, Mesa and Rio Blanco counties make up 65 percent of the area threatened by oil and gas development on public lands. Communities like Battlement Mesa and Parachute have faced more and more proposals for industrial oil and gas facilities in their neighborhoods, just as residents of Greeley and others on the Front Range are facing.

“If you look at Battlement Mesa on the O&G threat map, it seems all the danger zones intersect there,” said Leslie Robinson, chair of Grand Valley Citizens Alliance (GVCA). “But again, as air circulates, methane and other gas field chemicals are blown eastward towards Vail and Aspen. And this is in combination with pollution from the gas fields in Utah.”

Regulations adopted in 2014 in Colorado mandating inspections of oil and gas operations for potential leaks have improved air quality, reduced emissions and promoted worker care and safety.

Robinson added: “Colorado may have one of the strongest set of regulations concerning methane capture, but since air knows no boundaries, we are still breathing toxic gases from O&G development on federal lands and from neighboring states that have no air quality protections. The new rules in Colorado will be meaningless if the same type of regulations aren’t applied to neighboring states and federal lands.”

According to Mantell, The Wilderness Society and Earthworks created the additional public lands maps to show the need for new regulations from the Bureau of Land Management to reduce the amount of methane entering the atmosphere from the public lands it manages, thus crossing invisible borders and creating areas of non-attainment across the U.S.

Methane is the main component of natural gas. When methane is released it is accompanied by a chemical soup of pollutants including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, hydrogen sulfide, and many more, most of which are known to increase rates of cancer, heart disease and respiratory diseases, which are leading causes of death in many of the counties most affected by the oil and gas development depicted by the new maps.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide in the short term, so reducing methane pollution has environmental as well as public health benefits. A NASA funded study published in August in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that more than two-thirds of the massive plume in the San Juan Basin, better known as the Four Corners methane hot spot, accounts for nearly one tenth of the oil & gas industry’s annual emissions, and it’s coming from only 25 oil & gas processing facilities.

The new BLM guidelines, known as the Methane and Waste Reduction Rule — aka “natural gas waste rule” — are expected to be released in November. The BLM estimates that, when it’s finalized, the rule will reduce the industry’s methane pollution by up to 40 percent, a reduction in greenhouse gases equivalent to taking almost one million cars off the road.

The natural gas waste rule will require oil and gas operators to implement best practices to capture gas they are currently burning or releasing into the atmosphere, and improve detection and repair of gas leaks. The draft of the BLM proposal was based in part on Colorado’s successful emission requirements.

The maps don’t represent the total scale of the problem since they do not account for the significant oil and gas development on tribal lands in these six states because that data was unavailable. But BLM’s regulations will apply to tribal lands, helping many more people currently impacted by air pollution from oil and gas development.

“The Obama Administration has a real opportunity to help tens of thousands of people with strong guidelines concerning oil and gas development on public lands,” said Mantell. “And the best part is that, besides helping address public health issues, BLM’s natural gas waste rule will return money to taxpayers by capturing this pollution and turning it into energy. We see it as a key component of the administration’s energy and climate legacy.”

In addition to people, nearly 12,000 square miles of public lands are threatened by methane pollution, Mantell added. Many of the areas most threatened are renowned for the recreation opportunities they provide. Recreation and tourism are significant economic drivers for western communities, but these industries can be severely impacted by pollution from oil and gas development.

Hispanic Access Foundation’s Arce said: “These are places where we live, recreate and work, and it is unacceptable that we are subject to pollution that endangers our health and well-being. BLM’s safeguards will help protect our kids and lead to cleaner air.”

What is the risk where you live? What about your favorite places on public lands?

Click here to check out the Colorado public lands layer to the Oil & Gas Threat Map.

Click here for access all six states public lands maps.

Click here to view the Oil & Gas Threat Map. The map shows where federal oil and gas leases have been issued, where active wells are located, and a half-mile threat zone radius where people may be at risk, according to peer reviewed studies.

Sources: The Wilderness Society, Earthworks, Oil & Gas Threat Map, and LOGIC (League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans)

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