Most of the natural gas industry has turned its back on reasonable public health and environmental protections, and government oversight and enforcement needs to rebalance the equation.
As one of America’s oldest and largest environmental organizations, the Sierra Club’s oil and natural gas policies have evolved as we have learned more about adverse effects on our health and environment, as science evolves, and as we identify operational failures by both the government and industry.
The harms caused by the entire process of producing oil and natural gas must end. Despite claims to the contrary, groundwater contamination caused by drilling and fracking practices is prevalent and must be brought under control.
In February, Shane Davis, the Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter Oil & Gas Research Manager, announced statistics on a sampling of 1,000 spill reports from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) website, dated after 2008. Davis stated, “We know that in Colorado, 43 percent of all spills contaminate groundwater, and 100 percent of all spills contaminate soils with toxins like deadly benzene, ethylene, toluene and xylene. There are horrific volumes of toxic and radioactive liquids that are never recovered from groundwater and soil.”
Compounding the problem of spills, drilling and fracking operations are running in the heart of Colorado communities. We are alarmed that state and local governments continue to allow heavy industrial activities as close as 350 feet to occupied residences. The industry’s operations are far from Best Management Practices (BMPs), due to their inherent failure rates. Overturning the numerous federal exemptions would be the first step in implementing BMPs for the oil and gas industry.
The Colorado School of Public Health states that people living within a half-mile radius from active oil and gas production suffer a greater risk for health complications and illness. If a resident complains of industrial odors to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, they often take 48 hours to respond, allowing the pollution to dissipate, eliminating the chance to properly investigate the report, and offering no answers for the homeowner. Some dangerous vapors are not even detectable by the human nose. There are no studies on the health impacts of drilling pad air toxins, and we agree with The Denver Post editorial board that comprehensive health impact studies are needed. In the meantime, Coloradans are exposed, yet unstudied, guinea pigs.
How do Colorado families protect their health and safety if an accident occurs next to their home or children’s school? We believe this hazardous industrial activity must not continue to be exempt from human and environmental health protections, or allowed to operate next door to homes with growing children, elderly people, and other vulnerable populations.
The Sierra Club holds COGCC accountable in its mission, part of which states, “Responsible development results in … the prevention and mitigation of adverse environmental impacts.” COGCC can no longer be allowed to fail in this mission. The commission, the governor, and the industry should not be publicly defending the impacts of drilling that uses fracking. They should be mandating protection over profit. Every day we hear more about families being unable to drink their water due to fracking.
Colorado needs to move forward with our abundant, clean, inexpensive, healthy, jobs-generating, domestic, and renewable energy supplies. Because of the hazards created by production and consumption of coal, oil and natural gas, we need to move beyond these fuel sources as expeditiously as possible. Natural gas is a bridge fuel to further harming the planet, including our local environment and human health.
Rushing ahead to drill and burn more oil and natural gas while allowing the industry to operate in secrecy with inadequate protections will continue to harm people and wildlife, squander clean water, air and soil, and slow the development of cleaner forms of energy. We must act now for a better energy future.
Joshua Ruschhaupt is director of the Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter. Other members of the Oil & Gas Team contributed to this commentary. Reprinted with permission from the Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter.