Dissecting the fake-based opposition to setbacks

April 14, 2017

Colorado, oil and gas drilling

Well pad site near residential subdivision and Red Hawk Elementary School in Erie, CO. No amount of legislation or rulemaking will change this situation to protect public health. [Photo by Aurora Open/SuperStock]

HB-1256 would have moved new oil & gas facilities 1,000 feet from the property lines of all schools and daycare centers, as opposed to 1,000 feet from the buildings which is the current setback rule. The bill passed the House committee on a party line vote two weeks ago but failed in the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee on Wednesday by another party line vote of 6 to 5, this time with the Republicans winning one for the oil & gas industry.

While the hearing was going on in Denver, students at Grand Valley Middle School in Parachute were evacuated for several hours due to an “unidentified odor.” Officials were blaming it on hydrogen sulfide (sewer gas) but air samples were taken. If we don’t hear anything more about it, we can assume it was likely related to oil & gas operations. Otherwise they would publish the air quality test results on the front page of the paper.

But I’m sure the two events are totally unrelated.

Even though the school setbacks bill failed, the good news is at least we can count on the Democrats in the state legislature to vote on the side of protecting the people and not the industry. It hasn’t always been that way.

We also learned a little something about the how the opposition looks at the issue. At the committee hearing Barbara Kirkmeyer, Weld County commissioner and one of 12 people who testified against the bill, relied on a home brew of fake news in her testimony. As reported in the Denver Post, Kirkmeyer “said there were no peer reviewed studies that showed the negative health affects [sic] of living and being near oil and gas activity.”

It just so happened that Thursday morning I participated in a TEDX teleconference with Dr. Lisa McKenzie who cited more than a dozen peer-reviewed studies in her presentation. She also testified in favor of the bill twice, before both committees about her own and other peer-reviewed studies.

And let’s not forget the Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking. The fourth edition of the Compendium was published last November.

“The number of peer-reviewed publications on the impacts of fracking doubled between 2011 and 2012 and then doubled again between 2012 and 2013. More studies were published in 2014 than in 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012 combined. The number of studies published in 2015 surpassed those published in 2014 by ten percent.* Of the more than 200 peer-reviewed studies published thus far in 2016, 44 constitute original research on health, water quality, and air quality.”

If anyone knows Kirkmeyer’s email address could they please send her links to some facts?

But she was just getting started, asking: “If it’s truly a safety concern, why are schools there?”

I’m thinking the schools were probably “there” first. But of course pro-industry types would say, “The gas was there first along with the mineral rights and you built your schools on top of our gas.” A hackneyed old argument they have foisted on us for decades. The fact is, with today’s technology operators can drill horizontally a mile or more away from the gas. But it costs more. So in the cost-benefit analysis, the long-term effects on children’s health don’t matter much.

Kirkmeyer added: “In 2014, the Colorado Department of Health did a study that said in Weld County we have lower cancer rates and birth defects than the rest of the state and we have 22,000 active wells in Weld County.”

Wait. What? Did I miss a study?

No and this is probably the biggest bunch of BS unloaded in the room that day. It’s not always easy to debunk this fake news crap but I finally found the article in the Greeley Tribune from September 2016.

Weld County health incidents level with rest of state, despite more oil and gas development

The article essentially consists of propaganda from CDPHE’s director Dr. Larry Wolk infamously equating cigarette smoking with oil & gas emissions, and the aptly-named Bill Jerke, executive director of Fostering Unity and Energizing Leadership (FUEL) Colorado, who gives presentations that refute claims oil and gas development is harmful to public health. Jerke is the guy who said Weld County didn’t have any public health issues. Wolk is the guy who said “statistics from the health department show oil and gas has not affected the general health of Weld County.”

Sadly there was no CDPHE study in Weld County in 2014, though Kirkmeyer’s testimony definitely shows the need for one. The 2014 health study referred to in the article is Dr. Lisa McKenzie’s study: “Birth Outcomes and Maternal Residential Proximity to Natural Gas Development in Rural Colorado,” which showed that certain birth defects are as much as 30 percent more common among mothers living near natural gas wells. The study didn’t take place in Weld County; it was here in Garfield County. And the study actually did show a correlation.

In other words, Kirkmeyer read an article in the paper once.

That’s not all. According the DP article Kirkmeyer said “many of the schools in Weld County are choosing to build in the areas where oil and gas production sites have been for years.”

The folks in Weld County will have to help out with this one. Are there any schools being built next to oil & gas facilities in Weld County? I couldn’t find any. This strikes me as inaccurate.

Kirkmeyer also said “her two children and five grandchildren have lived near active sites for years and her grandkids are excited to see the machinery and equipment.”

Kids are excited to see fireworks and bombs explode, too. That doesn’t make it a good idea to build fireworks or munitions factories next to schools. Notice how she neglected to say whether her children and grandchildren have any health issues, like asthma or skin rashes, or other chronic health problems.

Kirkmeyer’s testimony was so out there, I suspect the reporter included the bulk of it in the article to expose the irrationality of the opposition that won the day.

Finally the article tells us that Kirkmeyer said: “It’s disingenuous for these people to say it’s a health issue. This is not a common sense bill to try and protect children. No matter where it’s at, the goal is to try to get their nose under the tent to ban the oil and gas industry.”

Yes, when all else fails the pro-industry types throw out the old canard that we’re out to ban fracking. A bill that seeks to move oil & gas facilities farther away from school buildings is most definitely not a fracking ban.

However passage of such a bill would be tacit acknowledgment that emissions from oil & gas operations are harmful to public health. We can’t have that. Not when CDPHE’s Dr. Wolk claims oil & gas emissions aren’t much different than second-hand cigarette smoke. Just don’t go stand on a gas well and smoke a cigarette. According to the CDPHE, that could be harmful.

Speaking of Dr. Larry Wolk and the CDPHE, a group of 18 state legislators led by Senator Matt Jones (D-Louisville), who also sponsored HB-1256, sent a letter this week questioning the department’s recent health impact study as too narrow in its focus. You can read the full text of their letter at the bottom of this article: 18 Colorado lawmakers send letter questioning state oil and gas health impact study, demanding new report.

The legislators are demanding a new peer-reviewed, comprehensive, and transparent study of the health impacts from living near oil & gas operations.

While it’s encouraging to see our state legislators call out Wolk and his bogus study, they want another study? Seriously? Talk about tone deaf. I just pointed out 200 peer-reviewed studies.

Coloradans would appreciate it if the CDPHE would simply take into consideration the hundreds of studies that already exist.

Here’s another idea. If Senator Matt Jones and his posse of 17 plus Rep. Mike Foote really believe in school setbacks, they should get together and submit a rulemaking petition to the COGCC to modify setbacks regulations to allow for 1,000 feet from all public and private school and daycare center property lines.

The COGCC doesn’t listen to the people, maybe they will listen to legislators speaking on our behalf.

If nothing else, we’d definitely get to hear Commissioner Kirkmeyer testify at the rulemaking hearings. That alone would be worth the price of admission.

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2 Comments on “Dissecting the fake-based opposition to setbacks”

  1. Leslie Robinson Says:

    It’s important to emphasize again the CDPHE publication was not a study; it was a report. And a CDPHE spokesperson admitted they cherry-picked the information in this interview: http://www.coloradoindependent.com/164243/cdphe-fracking-health-impacts Remember, too, CDPHE Wolk serves at the pleasure of Governor Hickenlooper.

  2. Bob Arrington Says:

    This was an email letter I sent out in 3/2017
    Dr.(deleted)

    Perhaps you may remember me from previous contacts. I am Bob Arrington, P.E. from Battlement Mesa in Garfield County.
    I am contacting you for advice on the report, Assessment of Potential Public Health Effects from Oil and Gas Operations in Colorado, released by CDPHE Feb. 21, 2017, page 35
    I was a “stakeholder” in the original process initiated by Garfield County Health Department under Jim Rada and Paul Reaser to develop a “data only” analysis of O&G emissions here in Garfield. This was later turned over to the “technical’ team” lead by Dr. Collett from CSU to do the field measurements and data gathering. At a final meeting in Rifle, before the field work began Collett described his plans to use acetylene as the tracer gas (vs. an EPA “unique” tracer) to proportionately measure volumetric ratios of detected emissions. I object then to that choice and all future public meetings I attended on the program.
    My objections were for the obvious. Collett had to get permissions from O&G which meant they could prepare and take steps to minimize emissions and could release their own source of acetylene (including the use of calcium carbide). The result would be for ratios of acetylene to hydrocarbons giving lower hydrocarbon emissions than actual because acetylene volume could be higher than believed to be released.
    In other words, bias wasn’t prevented in my opinion. Now that data is being used as bases of new conclusions on data, that besides being self-labeled sketchy, the foundation background may also be compromised.

    And as far as the “sketchy” data, I am also enclosing a previous occurrence here in Garfield on birth defects that CDPHE took a pass on.

    Bob Arrington

    “And, then by year’s end (2013), we would learn of a higher number of birth defects after 80% of this spill {Parachute Creek gas plant spill of volatile hydrocarbons 12/18/12 to 1/2/13} “went into the air”. This wasn’t just the mixture wafting from drill pads, it was the concentrated mix of light to heavy forms of hydrocarbons including concentrated amounts of the hazardous volatiles at a 1000-times what could come off a pad in a day.
    The health department said the women involved, for the most were not within a 10-mile radius of a pad. But they WERE within100-mile radius of this spill and downwind.”

    Remember, this little tidbit – it only takes a single molecule of that hydrocarbon to affect that embryo.

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