Colorado's oil and gas industry could be toxic to local residents

Oil and gas emissions are now the state’s main source of volatile organic compounds and its third-largest source of nitrogen oxides. 

Ecopolitologist, flickr

Should Coloradans hold their breath for human health regulations on oil and gas pollution?

Oil and gas were responsible for 90 percent of Colorado’s air pollution enforcement cases in the first quarter of 2013. Of the 98 oil industry violations recorded during that quarter, only 73 resulted in fines.

Colorado is strewn with more than 50,000 oil and gas wells to date—a number currently increasing by about 2,000 every year—that pump out at least 600 tons of noxious contaminants into the atmosphere per day. These emissions are now the state’s main source of volatile organic compounds and its third-largest source of nitrogen oxides. Sound scary? It is.

But perhaps the scariest element to this story is the fact that no comprehensive study on the health risks presented by oil and gas emissions exists. Scientists and residents have no idea what, exactly, is in their air and how it’s affecting human health.

This means that when it comes time to craft regulations in the interest of protecting people’s well-being, the lack of scientific certainty regarding air contaminants will prove to be a major setback. Of the ongoing air dispersal studies related to oil and gas development, none include human health data or are expected to inform policymaking.

Oil well in Johnstown, Colorado. Photo: Maarten1979, flickr

Reducing air pollution will ultimately depend on compliance and enforcement. At this moment, entities like the Environmental Defense Fund are hoping to enable stricter controls on oil and gas development:

"As operators prepare to invest billions ... we need to ensure we have the regulatory structure in place to minimize impacts to human health and the environment," EDF regional director Dan Grossman said. "While there's no question that oil and gas development is an important economic driver in Colorado, there's also no question that we need to make sure this development is done right."

The Wilderness Society aims to mitigate the known risks of oil and gas drilling, by working to ensure that development leasing is done responsibly.

Irresponsible oil and gas development not only pollutes our air and water, it damages the ecosystems that make up our wildlands as well. This means protecting air quality from harmful emissions, methane emissions and other air pollutants that accompany fossil fuel development. At Wilderness, we work to ensure these principles are followed by the government and the oil and gas companies that use America's public lands.