From her home in Broomfield, Susan Speece, 74, says she can tell when oil and gas workers are drilling.
“Burning eyes. Stuffy nose. Burning in the trachea. Burning in the throat as if you had inhaled chlorine,” said Speece, a former chancellor of Penn State’s Berks campus and teacher of life science who has long been outspoken with her concerns about oil and gas drilling.
She said she’s particularly concerned as any day now, Extraction Oil and Gas will begin the flow-back phase on an 18-well fracking pad about a quarter of a mile from her home on the opposite side of the Northwest Parkway. This phase, during which sand and water are pulled up from the well, generally releases more toxic chemicals like benzene into the air than other phases. The state has said flow back can lead to chemical exposure high enough to cause respiratory issues in certain conditions.
And with a pandemic of a respiratory illness spreading across Colorado — a disease that has already killed 250 people in the state — Speece, who lives in the over-55 community of Anthem Ranch, is on high alert.
“We don’t know what the health impacts will be when they begin flow back,” she said. Speece said she has collected air samples from her home during other drilling phases on the Livingston pad. “I hate being the guinea pig. That’s not the role in life I really had planned. But I have a canister waiting.”
Because the impacts of drilling emissions on COVID-19 vulnerability are not entirely known, there is little she and local health officials say they can do to halt the flow-back operation.
City and county health officials, who have long opposed drilling in the residential community, hoped to block the flow-back phase of Extraction’s operation. But on Wednesday night, the Broomfield City Council, acting as the county health board, voted 9-1 to abandon a public health order to delay the operation citing fears of litigation.
“We just didn’t have data [for the order] to be legally defensible,” said Laurie Anderson, a city councilwoman who lives about a mile from the Livingston drilling site.
Last month, Broomfield officials were discussing a public health order to pause the drilling operation. Before the order was adopted, Extraction, on March 27, filed a restraining order against Broomfield, stunting their efforts for more than a week. Broomfield challenged the restraining order, and on April 6, District Court Judge Robert W. Kiesnowski lifted it. When he did, the judge issued a warning to the city and county: “The court simply reminds Broomfield that when exercising its police powers, it may not do so in an in a manner that is contrary to constitutional rights or privileges or is arbitrary and capricious and not rationally related to combating the spread of COVID-19, lest it again face Extraction’s request for temporary, preliminary, and/or permanent injunctive relief.”
The fight comes when oil and gas companies are struggling to backfill their debts. Russia and Saudi Arabia are competing for market share during the pandemic by flooding the market with oil, driving down pricing at a time when demand has diminished. Denver-based Extraction said Thursday it had cut its 2020 budget for exploration and production nearly in half. Last week, Houston-based Noble Energy, the second-largest oil and gas producer in Colorado, reduced to half-time or furloughed 30% of its workforce, Denver-based Whiting Petroleum filed for bankruptcy, and Broomfield-based DMC Global Inc. cut its workforce by about a third.
Extraction did not respond to The Colorado Independent’s requests for comment.
Helping to tip the scales against the public health order was a recommendation from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), which oversees the industry. The COGCC said it has provided technical assistance to city and county officials and told them Extraction has been in compliance with COGCC rules. The COGCC also told city and county officials delaying the flow-back phase at wells under pressure with temporary equipment could lead to a “release,” which has left residents with the impression there could be an explosion. The COGCC has paused writing new rules for oil and gas wellbore integrity standards due to the inability to conduct face-to-face meetings during the pandemic. The new rules are required under Senate Bill 181, which was signed into law last April and called for new rules aimed at protecting public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife.
Despite all the uncertainty, Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health published a study this week that found a small increase in long-term exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) leads to a large increase in COVID-19 death rate.” Oil and gas operations emit volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxides, and other toxic chemicals like benzene but not much PM2.5. While advocates like 350 Colorado have petitioned the state to stop issuing pollution permits during the pandemic, the state says it, too, fears litigation.
“We haven’t seen the data that would justify not issuing permits or revoking any permits that are out there. And if we were to do that without adequate data we would expose ourselves to extensive litigation,” said John Putnam, environmental programs director for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, in an interview this week.
The state’s mobile air monitoring lab is stationed to the east of the Livingston pad drilling site. Another one is already placed at Anthem Ranch. About a dozen monitors will be placed at all sides of the drilling operation in the coming weeks. But as the data and studies come in, some residents worry it will be too late.
Anderson, a city councilwoman, said the state should be following the precautionary principle in the meantime.
“Do you allow something to go forward because you don’t have the data?” she said. “Just because you don’t have the data doesn’t mean it’s safe.”
This story was updated on April 13 with additional comments from the COGCC.