Oil and gas health risk study triggers stricter state permit reviews
A new Colorado study that uses data previously collected at Garfield County and Front Range oil and gas well sites shows the potential for short-term health impacts from emissions for people living within 2,000 feet of such operations.
The report raises questions about the state’s current laws requiring a 500-foot setback for oil and gas wells. It also comes as state regulators continue with rule-making following the passage earlier this year of sweeping new regulatory provisions contained in Senate Bill 181.
The negative impacts outlined in the new study — including headaches, dizziness and irritation to the eyes, skin and lungs — are mostly limited to worst-case weather and emission conditions, according to the study released last week by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Those “worst-case” conditions typically occur during the pre-production stage of well development when emissions are in their highest concentrations, and not after the wells are in production, according to the study.
It did not find any significant long-term health impacts, and any exposure cancer-causing chemicals, such as benzene, was within EPA’s acceptable range.
The “Human Health Risk Assessment for Oil & Gas Operations study used emissions data from oil and gas operations in Colorado to model what people could be exposed to as a result of oil and gas development.
The study was commissioned in 2017 under former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration and conducted by a third-party consultant. A peer-reviewed article about the study was published in the Journal of the Air and Waste Management Association.
The CDPHE released the study on Oct. 17. According to state health officials, the findings are not based on specific health impacts people have reported from oil and gas operations, or on measured concentrations surrounding a well pad.
Rather, it used actual emissions data, collected in part in Garfield County as part of a 2016 Colorado State University study, and a northern Front Range drilling sites. Garfield County and area operators were a funding partner for that study, but not the just-released study.
The latest study did find there is a possibility of negative health impacts at distances up to 2,000 feet from a well site.
“This study is the first of its kind because it used actual emissions data to model potential exposure and health risks,” CDPHE’s Environmental Programs Director John Putnam said.
“It is an important addition to the increasing body of knowledge about the potential health risks associated with oil and gas operations. This study just reinforces what we already know: we need to minimize emissions from oil and gas sources.”
In response, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) announced it would expand stricter protective permit reviews to sites that are within 2,000 feet of homes, schools and other occupied structures. Currently, that criteria extends to sites within 1,500 feet of such buildings.
“Working with our partners and CDPHE, we will immediately enact stricter and safer precautionary review measures to protect public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife, which align with our mandate under SB 19-181,” COGCC Director Jeff Robbins said in a statement.
The information in the study will be used to inform future regulation and rules, Robbins said. The COGCC is expected to complete its new rule-making under SB 181 by July of next year.
Though some environmental groups point to the new study in calling for a halt to new drilling permits in the state, Robbins said that will not happen.
“SB 181 did not tell the COGCC to stop, have a moratorium or ban oil and gas development, nor did it give industry a free pass on permits,” Robbins said.
But a greater level of review for permits on sites up to 2,000 from homes and other buildings is appropriate, he said.
That expansion will affect some 39 additional pending applications, including one in Garfield County and another in neighboring Rio Blanco County, according to COGCC.
The new study does have its limitations, according to COGCC, including its reliance on some data from 2014, before significant regulatory changes were put into place.
The data also does not incorporate current best management practices at oil and gas well sites.
That’s an important point, say industry officials, who urged caution in raising the warning flags around the findings of the new study.
“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,” Lynn Granger, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, said in a statement.
“Protecting the health and safety of our workers, the communities where we operate, and the environment are our industry’s top priority,” Granger said.
Eric Carlson, executive director for the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, noted that the vast majority of natural gas wells in western Colorado are in remote locations away from homes and populated areas. Therefore, the biggest takeaway from the new study is worker safety, he said.
“We are very concerned any time our workers are exposed to unhealthy conditions, so we can look at this study to see what can be done there,” Carlson said.
Garfield County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky also noted that the study refers to extreme conditions that, in most cases, aren’t present at Garfield County sites.
“The good news is that it didn’t find any long-term effects,” Jankovsky said. “But it does verify some things for individuals who may be more sensitive to that short-term exposure.”
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