Oil and gas, the invisible killer

To the editor,

According to the 2018 Conservation in the West poll, Coloradans overwhelmingly favor health-protective rules that keep us safe from air pollutants and climate-changing methane emissions. Seventy-four percent want government to require the oil and gas industry to do more to prevent leaks and capture methane on public lands. Unfortunately, some in Congress are pushing for the exact opposite.

Congress is working on a federal funding bill that endangers public health and the environment. The bill includes a host of harmful policy riders known as “poison pills,” the term for unrelated amendments attached to must-pass legislation.

For example, some of these riders would block Environmental Protection Agency and Bureau of Land Management rules limiting dangerous methane pollution from fracking operations. These rules require the oil and gas industry to use cost-effective technologies to reduce natural gas venting and flaring as well as to find and fix leaks from equipment and operations.

The Obama administration’s EPA estimated that the agency’s standards would avert 510,000 tons of methane pollution in 2025, which is equivalent to burning 12.3 billion tons of coal.

Stopping leaks also reduces toxic emissions. Published studies have highlighted the connection between living close to fracking operations and increased health risks. Researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health identified dangerous levels of benzene – a powerful carcinogen – near fracking operations as well as elevated risks of cancer for residents living within a half mile of a drilling site. Additional peer-reviewed research has shown increased risks for birth defects and childhood leukemia in babies born to mothers living in close proximity to oil and gas drilling operations. Asthma and preterm births have also been associated with fracking.

Methane also accelerates climate change. It is 86 times more potent over its first 20 years than carbon dioxide.

Coloradans are already seeing impacts of climate change in the increasing number of wildfires and decreasing amount of snowpack. Climate Central reports that Colorado is one of the 10 states experiencing the fastest warming summers. These increased temperatures can lead to increases in illness and death for our most vulnerable people, namely children and the elderly.

Fugitive emissions from drilling and rising temperatures both contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, the primary component of smog. This is a major problem for Colorado. The Front Range has failed to comply with EPA ozone standards since 2012, and by some estimates, compliance may not be possible before 2030. The Four Corners area is under the largest methane cloud in the nation as a result of venting, flaring and leaks from drilling operations. Ozone levels are increased under the methane cloud, and elevated ozone levels result in increased incidence of asthma and respiratory infections, with children and the elderly being the most vulnerable. Ozone itself is linked to approximately 10,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year.

In June 2017, the State of Colorado joined other states in a lawsuit challenging the EPA administrator’s decision to stop the EPAs rules to reduce methane and other harmful air pollutants from oil and gas operations on federal lands.

We urge Rep. Scott Tipton and Sen. Cory Gardner to follow this example and oppose poison pill environmental riders, like the methane riders, in the final 2018 spending bill. (Sen. Michael Bennet has consistently voted for environmental and public health protections.) We also urge local, state and federal policymakers to support the expansion of clean renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and battery backup. Only then can we begin to reduce the risks to our health caused by the mining and burning of coal, oil and gas.

– Dr. Lauri Costello, Durango, and Dr. Larry Moore, Manitou Springs, Colorado Physicians for Social Responsibility