Colorado residents near oil and gas sites have long worried about health impacts. A new state study bolsters their concerns

Study says drilling can increase risks of short-term health problems under worst-case scenarios.

An oil rig outside the town of Erie. (Photo by Phil Cherner)

Rep. Sonya Jaquez Lewis, a pharmacist and organic farmer from unincorporated Boulder County, said she can see oil and gas companies burning off excess gas into the air across the county line. 

“You can smell it. You get a burning sensation,” Jaquez Lewis told The Colorado Independent. 

She suspects the emissions from these oil and gas operations have caused the nosebleeds, nausea, headaches and respiratory issues her neighbors experience. Some have had their blood tested to find high levels of toxic chemicals, such as benzene, she said.  

Residents living atop Colorado’s reserves of oil and gas have for years contacted state health officials to report these ailments. And now, a study published Thursday further bolsters what they have long argued: Living near oil and gas drilling could put their health at risk. 

The $600,000 study conducted by the consulting firm ICF International showed people living within 2,000 feet of oil and gas drilling could be exposed to short-term health risks under worst-case scenario conditions, such as in the early stages of drilling when emissions are highest or when the wind blows toward a home. 

The study estimated the risk and potential health impacts of exposures based on emissions data. The estimates are used to predict, or “model,” how pollutants might move through air.

Oil and gas operations emit volatile organic compounds, including benzene, a known human carcinogen. The study found cancer risks fall within acceptable federal exposure limits. 

In response to the peer-reviewed, 380-page study, which former Gov. John Hickenlooper commissioned, state health officials and oil and gas regulators said more monitoring is needed to determine a causal relationship between exposure to oil and gas emissions and health impacts. A key limitation, state officials said, is that the study used data dating back to 2014, prior to Colorado’s adoption of limits on methane emissions. The study also did not measure health impacts near multiple well pads.

“The study indicated the possibility for short-term health impacts,” Jeff Robbins, the director for the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, told reporters in Denver Thursday. “We will undertake efforts to determine causation.” 

Robbins said he would put in place “stricter review measures” for all drilling location permit applications that fall within 2,000 feet of an occupied structure. Robbins also wants to ramp up monitoring of current drilling activity to test emissions. 

Regulators made clear that they do not plan to halt drilling in light of the new study. In the near term, it remains unclear what will change for residents living near oil and gas operations. 

“I think today’s study is at least an acknowledgment by the state of what people living with oil and gas already knew,” said Sara Loflin, the executive director for the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Citizens (LOGIC), a nonprofit organization representing residents near oil and gas drilling.  

In 2018, residents filed 548 complaints over drilling near their homes, citing noise, odor and air quality concerns, according to state data. There are more than 53,000 active wells in Colorado, and the state has approved more than 1,800 drilling permits so far this year. 

Several environmental groups have been advocating for a drilling permit timeout until the state updates its rules for issuing permits to reflect new protections for public health, safety, welfare and the environment, as required by Senate Bill 181, which was signed into law in April. The rulemaking process is expected to take until the summer of 2020. 

In light of the report, Colorado Rising, the Sierra Club and Earthworks called for drilling permits to be put on hold. 

“If more research is needed to determine the level of harm how can Jeff Robbins ensure new permits are ‘sufficiently protective?’” Anne Lee Foster, communications for Colorado Rising, said in a statement. “This study also highlights the insufficiencies of oversight and enforcement of oil and gas extraction in Colorado.” 

Lawmakers who wrote Senate Bill 181 responded to the study by calling for more monitoring and studies. 

“This new CDPHE study is valuable, but what we really need is a comprehensive epidemiological study that looks at real health impacts on real people who live near oil and gas wells,” said Majority Leader Steve Fenberg of Boulder. 

Environmental groups and some Democratic lawmakers, including Fenberg and Jaquez Lewis, want to see permits that fall within 2,000 feet of a home delayed until new rules for permitting are completed.

Jaquez Lewis stopped short of calling for greater setbacks. 

“I think many of us are watching this issue closely and waiting to see the final rulemaking. Then we will be making some final decisions,” she said. 

That neither lawmakers nor state officials pitched the possibility of increasing the state’s current setbacks for drilling rigs, currently at 500 feet from occupied buildings, speaks to how politically dicey the subject is. The industry touts its $30 billion contribution to the state’s economy.  

Environmental groups attempted in 2014, 2016 and 2018 to pass ballot measures to increase setbacks up to 2,500 feet. All were voted down. Protect Colorado, an industry-backed political campaign committee, has spent about $60 million on advertisements and messaging in order to defeat the measures. 

Such an outcome at the ballot box has likely spoiled any prospects of lawmakers passing setbacks at the state Capitol anytime soon. When lawmakers were writing new oil and gas laws earlier this year, oil and gas representatives said they were usurping the will of voters. 

The study is a follow up to a 2017 health impacts study that concluded there is a low risk of harmful health impacts when living more than 500 feet from a well. That study was not peer-reviewed. 

A separate 2018 peer-reviewed study by researchers with Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus found that people living in the Front Range within 500 feet of an oil and gas were at risk of cancer. When lawmakers were hearing testimony on Senate Bill 181, a representative of an oil and gas trade group cast doubt on the 2018 study, criticizing its sample size. 

The oil and gas industry likewise has concerns about the study published Thursday. Lynn Granger, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, said the group will evaluate the results.

“Thorough review of existing scientific research shows that the current, robust standards and stringent state and federal regulations are in place to protect public health,” Granger said. “Using modeled exposures instead of measured air quality data introduces uncertainties and limitations that may result in erroneous estimates of risk for a population.”

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