As utilities across Europe make the switch from coal to gas, CO2 emissions there are falling. But on the other side of the Atlantic, ever-rising fracking production deteriorates air and water quality, impacting public health. Buchsbaum reports from Colorado where ozone and other industry associated pollutants regularly makes outdoor exercise dangerous.
Like California and Texas sharing a border
Looking westward from my mother’s porch, the view of high prairie lands melding into the foothills directly under the majestic 14,259-foot (4346 m) Long’s Peak and surrounding Rocky Mountain National Park Wilderness is a slice of Colorado heaven. But turn 180 degrees in the other direction, and you’re looking straight into fracking hell.
Just a half-mile across County Line Road, the demarcation between Weld and Boulder counties, another well is being fracked. Towering over the rolling ranchlands, the drill’s masthead juts over the temporary straw bale sound barrier, encompassing the entirety of the well-pad.
Behind it, two more fracking rigs and several smaller re-stimulator drills are lined up, ascending a roll in the plains as the flares of a gas processing plant shimmer across the eastern horizon.
My mom’s house lies just barely on the Boulder side. It’s County Commissioners acted quickly to re-instate another moratorium against drilling using new local control laws that came into effect this summer. But just across the street begins the most densely fracked region in North America.
Weld County ranks as the number one oil- and gas-producing county in the state and perhaps the entire nation. Within its boundaries, over 22,000 wells gush 88% of Colorado’s crude oil and 36% of its natural gas out of the Wattenberg field, the fourth-largest in the U.S. Taking advantage of the same new local controls, Weld just formed its own oil and gas department to circumvent more stringent state laws and streamline drilling and production.
Throughout the Rocky Mountain State, fracking technologies have helped quadruple overall oil production since 2010 as drillers flocked to exploit its rich reserves –ranking fourth nationwide. Now one of the nation’s top gas producers, Colorado’s 60,000-plus active wells daily spew a river of hydrocarbons through an ever-expanding international pipeline network.
Spurred on by the Trump administration, oil and gas production nationwide has further exploded, last year reaching its highest level in 14 years. Output is expected to grow another 44% through 2040.
Marketed as better for the climate than coal, cheap fracked fossil gas is helping propel a fuel switch across Europe – dropping utilities’ CO2 emissions across the continent.
But the Continent’s gain is coming at the expense of those who live there.
Living on the Boulder side
Despite its stricter regulations, living on the Boulder side of the line doesn’t prevent my mom or anyone else there from being affected by fracking’s harmful impacts. The toxins released across the road respect no borders.
Earlier this year, a new study by the University of Colorado’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) showed that high levels of harmful atmospheric pollutants such as nitrogen oxides, benzene, methane (note: utility-grade gas is mostly methane – itself a powerful greenhouse gas, roughly 80-100 times more heat-trapping than CO2) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are regularly blown into Boulder County from oil and gas wells just to the east in Weld. Nitrogen oxide can cause respiratory ailments and benzene, which researchers have also observed, is a known carcinogen.
Once hailed as a clean bridge fuel to renewables, as fracking has boomed, air quality along the Front Range of the Rockies – where more than 60% of Colorado’s 5.8 million residents live – has sharply deteriorated, violating national clean air standards for the last seven years. In 2018 alone, “there were 55 days when Coloradans were warned that exercise outdoors could be damaging to their health due to high ozone levels” said Jill Hunsaker Ryan, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE).
Ground-level ozone can lead to increased asthma attacks and other respiratory ailments, producing symptoms that include coughing, trouble breathing, and chest pain. It can also damage crops and vegetation.
Overwhelming evidence that fracking threatens human health
A mounting body of scientific evidence documents fracking’s health impacts. A new report published by Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York looks at 1,778 articles from peer-reviewed medical or scientific journals, investigative reports by journalists, and reports from government agencies on fracking. It found that 84% of studies published from 2009-2015 on the health impacts of fracking conclude the industry causes harm to human health.
Out of all the documented health impacts, one of the most concerning relates to how fracking affects pregnancies. Over 17 million Americans live a mile or less from an active oil or gas well. Research shows that at that distance, mothers have a 40-70% higher chance of birthing children with congenital heart defects as compared to those living further away, according to a new study from researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health.
“We observed more children were being born with a congenital heart defects in areas with the highest intensity of oil and gas well activity,” said the study’s senior author Dr. Lisa McKenzie of the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
Researchers also reviewed the industry’s effects on drinking water, air pollution, land use, and earthquakes, finding overwhelming evidence of widespread contamination.
“Five years ago, our state banned fracking on the basis of 400 fracking health impact studies,” said Dr. Sandra Steingraber, a professor of Environmental Studies and Sciences at Ithaca College and one of the lead authors of the New York study. “Now we have more than four times that amount of evidence that fracking cannot be done safely,” she said.
Worse, considering that the main rationale for the entire coal-to-gas conversion push is the corresponding reduction in greenhouse gasses, Steingraber pointed to several studies suggesting that if fugitive emissions of methane leakage from pipelines, ships, and storage equipment exceed more than three percent, gas would actually exacerbate the climate crisis. All evidence suggests industry’s methane emissions far exceed that level as fracking has released dangerous volumes of it into the atmosphere–in affect turbo-charging the climate crisis.
“It’s now clear that swapping out coal plants for natural gas is at best a lateral move,” Steingraber said. “And it’s beginning to look like it might even be more like getting out of the frying pan and into the fire.”