Across the county, in areas like north Texas, western Pennsylvania and in the suburbs and towns north of Denver, communities are becoming industrialized, dotted with oil and gas wells, laced with pipelines. People in these communities are living with the potential risks that comes from living close to oil and gas development.
Residents fear all sorts of health impacts , complaining about trouble breathing, headaches, nausea and about stressors like bright lights and noise. At the same time there is a growing body of research on low birth weights, childhood cancers and asthma in proximity to oil and gas wells. However, these studies haven’t shown that development actually caused health problems.
Faced with this uncertainty some states have acted. New York banned fracking in 2014, despite proven oil and gas reserves. Maryland and Vermont have also restricted it, as have some cities. But in Colorado, as in many other states, fracking is legal and widespread. Fracking is just one step in the process of drilling for oil and gas, but without it, very little new development would happen at all. Over the past ten years, U.S. oil production has doubled, while natural gas production has jumped by nearly 40 percent, largely thanks to fracking.
Given this expansion in drilling, many people are asking: Is living near oil and gas development bad for my health?
In this podcast, we are going to dig into what is known and what is unknown about these dangers and why those unknowns still exist, as more and more wells are drilled. We’re going to meet different people with different perspectives, who are all gathering data or studying it. They’re looking for answers and living with unknowns.
Chapter 1: The Concerns
Last summer, when an operator began work on an oil and gas site in Erie, residents started filing complaints with state regulators.
“After those noise complaints started rolling it, curiosity got the better of me. I just got on Amazon, plopped down my credit card and bought the drone,” said Erie resident Christiaan van Woudenberg. “When I looked at the footage from that first flight, it was stunning and terrifying.”
As the head of the Erie Protectors, a local anti-oil and gas group, van Woudenberg bought the small drone with a camera so that he could get a different view of what was going on during oil and gas operations near his house and elsewhere on the Front Range. He posts many of the videos on the Erie Protectors facebook page.
Health concerns are his primary motivation. Last summer van Woudenberg says there were diesel-like, gaseous smells coming from the nearby well pad so he made his two daughters stay inside all summer.
He is not the only one who was concerned. Last year around 180 oil and gas complaints came in to Colorado’s health department from Erie. Statewide, oil and gas regulators received over 1,300 complaints .
For these communities the potential risks can feel serious and real. Van Woudenberg, for example, thinks that air emissions from the nearby well pad have given him respiratory problems but acknowledges this feeling is ‘anecdotal’ rather than certain.
“And there’s no way that any doctor can point definitively to the six wells behind my home and show that they are the cause of my increased issues with colds and breathing,” explained van Woudenberg. “I am a person who is living close to oil and gas operations and I am a person who has seen increased respiratory issues in the last year and that only thing that has changed is the location of an oil and gas operation behind my home.”
Chapter 2: The Researchers
Making a direct causal link between oil and gas development and a certain health problem, like Christiaan van Woudenberg’s chest colds, is difficult, in part because there are so many different reasons why people get sick. Yet researchers around the country are working on gathering and analyzing information related to oil and gas development and public health, trying to close this knowledge gap.
Frank Flocke is a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. In a study published last year, he found that, on high ozone days, oil and gas operations contribute more to ozone production than anything else on the Northern Front Range. Flocke also found high concentrations of a harmful chemical called benzene near some oil and gas facilities.
“The cautionary tale here is that those are snapshots,” said Flocke, in describing the high benzene concentrations. “Those samples were taken once. They drove by. They noticed an odor. So they took a sample.”
Lisa McKenzie, a researcher at the Colorado School of Public Health, describes her recent work with deliberate word choice:
“I’m going to say this carefully … children with a very specific type of leukemia … were more likely to live in the densest areas of oil and gas development than not,” said McKenzie.
What McKenzie did not find — and this is where word choice matters — is that proximity to oil and gas development caused health problems in kids.
“This kind of study cannot show that the proximity caused the birth defects,” she explained. “I mean that real hard causal link. And that’s because we cannot do that kind of experiment, right? We cannot take people, put them in a laboratory where we control everything else about them and expose them to things and see what happens to them."
McKenzie does want to do those bigger studies, just as Flocke wants to go back and take more samples where he found high benzene levels. They both know that they need more data. But the bottom line is that these studies are not only complicated, they’re expensive.
McKenzie and Flocke both say funding is a huge barrier to doing more research related to oil and gas.
“You have to compete with everyone else out there doing health research on all other topics,” said McKenzie.
“As an air quality researcher, I would like to see more done because I know where those problems are but I’m sure every researcher in every field will tell you the same thing,” said Flocke.
Since 2015, Colorado’s health department has spent around $2.2 million on a program for people to report oil and gas related health concerns, on a study to monitor emissions near oil and gas infrastructure and on a mobile lab that can drive right into the problem areas.
But research dollars are stretched across a lot of priorities, and, at the federal level there isn’t a sustained source of funding channeling dollars towards this problem, the public health impacts of oil and gas.
All of that, coupled with the fact that communities growing near expanding oil and gas development is a relatively new issue means that, for now, communities have to live with a lot of unknowns.
Chapter 3: The State
Just because there are a lot of unknowns does not mean energy development has slowed. In fact, in Colorado, over the past ten years, natural gas output has jumped 35% while crude oil production has nearly quadrupled .
Meanwhile, public health officials are gathering information and analyzing data. The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) is working on a new analysis that will estimate health risks to people living at various distances from oil and gas operations.
“I think oil and gas development has the potential to create health impacts just like any other industrialized process,” said Dr. Larry Wolk, CDPHE’s Executive Director.
However, last year, CDPHE published an analysis of existing data, concluding that the risk of harmful health effects from oil and gas development are low and that more evidence would be needed to prove potential harm.
If that seems to contradict studies done by researchers like Lisa McKenzie and Frank Flocke that is, in part, because these conclusions depend on what is being measured, where, for how long, and then how exactly that information is analyzed and interpreted.
For CDPHE to make any strong statement about health impacts from oil and gas development, Dr. Wolk would need this:
"I want data that conclusively, every which way you cut it, shows that there’s a higher incidence or prevalence or risk. … There’s very few things in our industrialized society that are pure one way or the other and so we always try to help people weigh the risk and the benefit."
Chapter 4: The Balance
Without that kind of conclusive data, communities and lawmakers are forced to weigh the risks and benefits of oil and gas development.
On Colorado’s Front Range, that process is fraught and controversial.
"It’s the place where we’ve probably seen more conflict over oil and gas development than anywhere else in the country, that I’ve seen,” said Daniel Raimi, author of a new book, “The Fracking Debate: The Risks, Benefits, and the Uncertainties of the Shale Revolution.”
The benefits are often regional and national:
“The most obvious benefits are economic benefits, both for communities that have hosted oil and gas development and also for energy consumers, which is to say all of us,” said Raimi.
The risks are typically much more local:
“The risks to water quality, the risks to human health, the risks associated with climate change and the risks associated with earthquakes…the sheer scale of the industry means that some people will be negatively affected,” said Raimi.
So, how do regulators, lawmakers and citizens balance the benefits and the risks when making decisions about development?
“It’s a very complicated calculation,” explained Raimi. “It takes into account the economic potential, it takes into account the environment and health risk. It takes into account the local political environment and it takes into account the history of the character of a region.”
Erie, Colorado is deep within that region. This past summer, after people started complaining about smells and noises from oil and gas operations, the state sent it mobile lab to the area to measure air emissions . Those measurements showed levels of volatile organic compounds that were well below federal and state standards.
But Christiaan van Woudenberg is really close to the risk side of the equation, so he’s thinking about health impacts way down the road.
“Really what I think it boils down to is that we people who are living in close proximity to these operations, we’re the guinea pigs. … Will we be able to backtrack a statistically significant increase in cancers and respiratory issues to the people that were living in Erie, Colorado in 2016 and 2017? That’s what I fear.”
Editor's Note: This story was produced with support from AirWaterGas, a National Science Foundation-funded network of researchers based at the University of Colorado Boulder, working to get more science into oil and gas policy. This program was edited by Alisa Barba. Our music was composed by Podington Bear.