CU fracking study author: No pressure from oil/gas industry

Lisa McKenzie
Courtesy photo

A University of Colorado faculty member who published findings last spring showing that air pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing may contribute to health problems for those living nearby says she has not experienced any blowback from the oil/gas industry as a result of her research.

Lisa McKenzie, a research associate at the Colorado School of Public Health on CU’s Anschutz Medical Campus, was the lead author of a paper published by Science of the Total Environment in May. The research, which involved examining three years of data, found potentially toxic petroleum hydrocarbons in the air near wells in Garfield County, including ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene and benzene, which the Environmental Protection Agency has identified as a known carcinogen. The study found elevated risks of cancer and non-cancer health problems (like eye irritation, headaches, sore throat and difficulty breathing) among people living within a half-mile of wells. And the greatest impact was seen during the well completion period, when fracking occurs.

The research was funded by Garfield County in an effort to measure health risks associated with wells around the community of Battlement Mesa.

Despite the well-publicized report — and her subsequent testimony about her research before a congressional panel in May — McKenzie says she has felt no pressure from her superiors or the oil/gas industry.

“From the University of Colorado, I’ve received no pressure at all,” she told BW. “And the industry also has not contacted us at all, or me directly.”

McKenzie added that to her knowledge, no one at the school has heard from oil/gas companies either.

“I’ve had no pressure, and no one above me has pressured me or spoken to me about it,” she explains. “What I don’t know is if there’s been any discussions at a higher level, and they don’t think they need to worry me about it.”

She says the only feedback she’s heard has been through media reports.

For example, Davis Ludlam, executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association, told The Denver Post that members of his group “concur with Ms. McKenzie’s recommendations that additional study is needed,” and he pointed out that the industry is working with Colorado State University on another air-quality study.

“I guess we knew that industry would have a response and would have their own take on our study, so we did anticipate that,” McKenzie says of the reaction.

But she declined to say that the credibility of the CSU study, which is being funded at least in part by the oil/ gas industry, would be suspect.

“The researchers at CSU are credible researchers and shouldn’t be biased,” McKenzie says.

One of her co-authors on the CU paper, Lee Newman, says he hasn’t felt any repercussions from their research either.

“My experience has been that here at the University of Colorado, I’ve been really delighted with the amount of academic freedom that I’ve had and that our group has had to study even things that to some people seem controversial,” he told BW.

Similarly, Ken McConnellogue, spokesperson for former oilman and CU President Bruce Benson, says he doesn’t believe the president has felt any blowback as a result of McKenzie’s research.

In fact, CU may soon receive a significant chunk of money, not from the oil/gas industry but the federal government, to fund a large research project on the impacts of gas extraction. A group of CU-Boulder faculty from a variety of disciplines has applied to be the lead institution receiving a $12 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for a project titled “Routes to Sustainability: Natural Gas Development and Air and Water Resources in the Rocky Mountain Region.”

NSF officials say the recipients of the grant money, which is part of a new NSF program called Sustainability Research Networks, may not be announced for a couple of weeks.