To Joann Ginal, a simple question doesn’t always yield an easy answer. For example: If oil and gas production is near your house, can it harm your family?
For many — like those who voted for fracking bans — the answer to that question seems to be an obvious, “yes.” But for Ginal, a state representative from Fort Collins, finding the right answer is trickier than that. There’s not enough research showing whether there’s a cause and effect when it comes to fracking and public health, she says.
In response, Ginal has crafted legislation to research the idea.
“Truth is, if you don’t have your health, you don’t have anything,” she says.
“So it’s worth knowing the answers.”
But try convincing the oil and gas industry that more answers are needed. Lobbyists for Noble Energy, Anadarko Petroleum Corp., the Bill Barrett exploration corporation, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and others are vying to kill Ginal’s House Bill 1297. Others in the industry — BP, Encana Oil & Gas (USA) Inc. and Shell Oil — have lobbyists monitoring the bill.
The bill would require the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to study and report on the health and quality-of-life effects of oil and gas operations in six counties: Boulder, Adams, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Larimer and Weld. The legislation would create a scientific oversight group of Legislature- and governor-appointed members, including at least two physicians, an economist, a statistician, a representative for environmental organizations and a representative of the oil and gas industry. The oversight group would have until Dec. 31 to approve a proposal to collect data from selected communities; Feb. 1, 2016, to approve studies of interest; and Jan. 1, 2017, to issue a final report “concerning the significance of occurrences of conditions of interest,” according to a legislative analysis.
All the research, which could spark recommendations for even more studying, will cost the state about $700,000 over the three-year period, according to Alex Schatz, a nonpartisan fiscal analyst with the state’s Legislative Council.
Doug Flanders, director of policy and external affairs for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, says many in the industry believe the bill is unnecessary because state officials are already working to protect public health.
“Why is there a need for an oversight committee, let the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment do their job uninhibited,” Flanders says. “They have the expertise and the experience.”
He adds: “The study’s oversight committee, if staffed as proposed, begins with the appearance of being political and thus not neutral or credible.”
And the “study is a duplicative effort,” Flanders says, because studies have either already been done or are underway.
But Ginal says the bill is meant to address the questions ordinary Coloradans may ask about oil and gas operations.
“Our constituents have a right to this information,” she says. Right now, they don’t believe they are being heard.”
Ginal, whose background is in science, adds she was “shocked” to find just a handful of credible government reports on oil and gas operations focused on human health. She could find only a handful of studies worth earmarking — four in Garfield County and more in the town of Erie.
“That’s all I could gather, and the findings were limited,” Ginal says. “The ones in Garfield County focused only on air quality in a limited area, and the ones in Erie were disputed, which causes problems.”
In Erie, a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found relatively high levels of propane in the atmosphere. Then the town commissioned Lakewood-based Pinyon Environmental Inc. to do a separate study, which found human health risks low. The opposing findings only fanned the flames of the debate about fracking and health, proving, Ginal says, that the state should play a role in sifting through the research.
Some of the research has generated big headlines, Ginal notes, like recently released research by the Colorado School of Public Health showing an association between congenital heart defects in babies and the presence of oil and gas operations. The birth defects, according to the study, are up to 30 percent more common for babies whose mothers lived within 10 miles of natural gas wells. Ginal echoes concerns raised by the state’s chief medical officer, Larry Wolk, that that study is problematic in several regards, like failing to account for other possible causes of birth defects and for not asking mothers if they lived at multiple addresses during their pregnancies.
Backing Ginal’s legislation are groups like Environment Colorado and Sierra Club Colorado. So are some local governments, especially in areas where operations are expanding or could expand. Boulder County and the city of Fort Collins both support Ginal’s legislation. Other government entities, including the city of Boulder, where voters in November passed a five-year ban, are watching.
Boulder City Councilman Sam Weaver supports the legislation: “Anything that advances our knowledge is a step in the right direction. I can’t imagine why anyone would oppose this because it is just gathering information.”
Meanwhile, officials in Weld County can imagine a reason to oppose it. None of Weld County’s commissioners were available for an interview, says county spokeswoman Jennifer Finch. However, Douglas Rademacher, the chairman of the commission, sent Boulder Weekly a brief written statement: “We are opposed to using any more taxpayer money to study something that has already been studied by the private, public and educational sectors.”
Weld borders Boulder County on the east and is home to approximately 20,000 oil and gas wells — more than any other county in the state. The oil and gas biz in Weld is synonymous with a way of life, a place where tax payments from single oil producers can be in the tens of millions of dollars, providing revenue for roads, schools, libraries and fire districts.
HB-1297 faces a long path ahead. The bill, which will cost $700,000 over three years, only eked its way past the House Health, Insurance and Environment Committee last week on a 6-5 party-line vote. Ginal and her fellow Democrats voted for the legislation; Republicans against.
This week, the bill advances to the House Appropriations Committee for debate. If successful, it then moves to the House floor. If passed, it goes to the Senate, where Democrat Irene Aguilar, a medical doctor from Denver, is the co-sponsor.
Even if the bill is approved by the Legislature, it must survive the scrutiny of Gov. John Hickenlooper, a trained oil geologist who supports fracking. Last year, the Democrat famously claimed during a congressional hearing that fracking fluid is safe enough to drink — and that he even drank some. That claim sparked a backlash of doubt and ridicule as did the governor’s new air quality regulations when it was realized that the state didn’t have enough inspectors to enforce the new regs and that the Environmental Defense Fund, who had helped to negotiate the news rules, was being funded by a number of major players involved with natural gas exports.
Should her bill make it to the governor’s desk, Ginal says she has reason to be optimistic.
“Yes, I believe they are open to it,” Ginal says. “Yes. That’s what I’ve heard. That’s all I can say right now.”
The governor’s office did not respond to a request for comment.