New report ranks Colorado third for oil- and gas-related health impacts — but there’s hope

Despite having the toughest oil and gas regulations in the country, Colorado ranks third for adverse health impacts from oil- and gas-related pollution, a new report has found. Denver ranks fifth for metro areas nationwide.

The Clean Air Task Force and the environmental organization Earthworks collaborated on the project, which used data from the Environmental Protection Agency’s national emissions inventory to isolate the health impacts of smog-forming pollution from the oil and gas industry across the U.S.

“We had been getting questions about the public health impacts of pollution from the oil and gas industry,” said lead author Lesley Fleischman, who works as a research analyst for the Clean Air Task Force. “We designed this study to be able to isolate the public health impact of the smog-forming pollution from the industry.”

The results found that Colorado kids under the age of 18 have 32,477 asthma attacks each year attributable to ozone smog from oil and gas production. In Denver alone, that number is 20,466 attacks. Only Texas and Oklahoma have a higher number of statewide incidents. Denver is outranked by Houston, Dallas, New York and Washington, D.C.

For the report, Fleischman and her team collected EPA data — which comes from state, county and local air quality regulators — on ozone pollution from all industries. They then ran that data through a widely used computer model to project the health consequences, such as asthma attacks and lost school days, related to pollution from those industries. Once they had that, they subtracted emissions from oil and gas facilities to isolate the health impacts.

The measurements come from both the EPA’s latest data (2011) and from the government agency’s projections through 2025. Researchers included the projections to make sure they accounted for all emissions regulations currently on the books.

Colorado, Fleischman pointed out, has the toughest oil and gas regulations in the country. “There’s no other state that has done what Colorado has done,” she said.

So why does it have the third-highest number of health problems related to fossil fuel extraction?

Largely because air pollution is a national problem, Fleischman said. “[Emissions regulations] have done a lot of good in this state, but it’s clear that this pollution is not a problem that stops at the border. It highlights the need for rules that cover existing sources all over the country.”

The “existing sources” piece is key: The study reports that in order to truly reduce national emissions pollution to safe levels, regulations have to control existing sources — not just new developments. Colorado’s regulations do just that — which is what sets them apart.

“The Colorado rules have been very successful at reducing emissions, but they’ve also set a precedent to show what can be done,” Fleischman said. “Industry and regulators and environmental groups came together to create a really great rule. It’s a precedent that we think should be followed at the national level.”

An interactive map showing the data is available here.