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New report shows potential health impacts of Colo. oil, gas production

A new report from the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment indicates that byproducts of oil and gas development could have negative health effects on people up to 2,000 feet away.

The report, released Oct. 17, uses emissions data from oil and gas operations in the state to estimate what people could be exposed to as a consequence of oil and gas development. In "worst-case" conditions, exposure to chemicals used in oil and gas development may cause "short-term negative health impact" including headaches, dizziness, skin and eye irritation, and respiratory issues, the agency, or CDPHE, said. The study said the potential for negative health impacts can be seen from 300 feet out to 2,000 feet.

SNL Image

Modeling done by the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment shows potential health risks caused by chemicals up to 2,000 feet from oil and gas facilities.
Source: AP photo

"The study is not based on actual health impacts people have reported from oil and gas operations or measured concentrations in the air surrounding the well pad," the department said. The CDPHE said scientists from Colorado State University conducted on-site air monitoring of 47 volatile organic compounds at oil and gas extraction facilities in Garfield County, Colo., and the northern Front Range. The group then used advanced exposure modeling to estimate potential health risks for hypothetical people of all ages living within 2,000 feet of an oil and gas facility.

"Exposure modeling for most chemicals indicated that acute exposures were below guideline levels for all hypothetical people and facilities. At the 500-foot distance, for a small number of chemicals (including benzene, toluene, and ethyltoluenes), the highest estimated acute exposures exceeded guideline levels at the most-exposed (downwind) locations, in isolated cases by a factor of 10 or more during oil and gas development activities, particularly during flowback activities at smaller well pads. Those highest predicted acute exposures decreased rapidly with distance from the hypothetical facilities, but remained above guideline levels out to 2,000 feet under a relatively small number of oil and gas development scenarios," the department said.

The CDPHE said the findings were not necessarily surprising but reiterated the potential risks posed by being near an oil and gas production facility for an extended period of time.

"This study just reinforces what we already know: we need to minimize emissions from oil and gas sources," Environmental Programs Director John Putnam said.

Environmental groups seized on the report's findings to push for an immediate pause in oil and gas permitting by the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC.

"The state of Colorado's acknowledgment of this threat demands immediate action. Colorado regulators must, at a minimum, pause permitting for any drilling activity within 2,000 feet of any home, school or public activity area," Earthworks Energy Program Director Bruce Baizel said.

In response to the report, the COGCC said that it would take "immediate action" when it comes to permit requests with setbacks of less than 2,000 feet.

"The COGCC will inform operators that permit applications will be reviewed under the Director's Objective Criteria and under the mandate of SB 19-181 for permits under 2,000 feet. Under Objective Criteria, the Director will continue to review proposed locations 1,500' or less to wells. Given the health study, the Director will ensure a protective review will occur for all wells under 2,000 feet from well to building unit," the commission said.

The COGCC also cited some concerns with the report, noting that some of its data was a half-decade old and did not take into account advancements made in reducing emissions during that time period. The commission also rejected the idea of a permitting halt.

"SB 19-181 [a new state law changing the mandate of the COGCC] did not tell the COGCC to stop, have a moratorium or ban oil and gas development and nor did it give industry a free pass on permits," Director Jeff Robbins said. "The COGCC is committed to implementing SB-181, regulating in a protective manner, and will work to ensure that the best data, from CDPHE's study to the future data-driven studies, can be used to inform these critical decisions that impact all of Colorado."

In a commentary on the report, Height Securities said the study may have hit the stock of DJ Basin operators such as Extraction Oil & Gas Inc. and PDC Energy Inc. on Oct. 17, but there will likely be little overall effect.

"We believe short-term impacts will likely be muted. In a press conference on the study, Director Robbins was clear that he has no legal or technical ability to go after existing wells or halt the permitting process," Height said.