True Grit: Can Your Community Afford the Oil and Gas Industry

Monday, May 23, 2011

Oil and gas development is often touted as the economic driver of rural western communities, in spite of the important economic role of amenity-based development, which includes retirees, entrepreneurs, recreation, tourism, and hunting and fishing. While oil and gas development has economic benefits, it also has costs—significant costs that are threatening public health, air and water quality, and  quality of life. The True Grit is that while oil and gas companies continue to reap record profits while enjoying billions in federal tax subsidies, rural communities suffer.

Dirty Air
Oil and gas development is a known contributor to air pollution. Of course this isn’t breaking news if you’re a resident of Wyoming’s Green River Basin or Utah’s Uinta Basin. Both areas are sparsely populated, yet have experienced some of the highest levels of air pollution in the country—exceeding that even of major cities like Los Angeles. Why? Well, fugitive emissions from widespread oil and gas development is the primary culprit. And the air pollution is doing more than mar scenic vistas, it is also causing or aggravating a host of respiratory and other health problems among local residents.

Drugs and Crime

Many rural communities are experiencing a rise in drug use and drug-related crimes that either correspond with new oil and gas development or, in some cases, is directly linked to development in existing fields. The poster child for this phenomenon is methamphetamine or “meth,” whose production and use has become an “epidemic” that has “engulfed” rural communities going through an oil and gas boom. As documented by High Country News, the long hours and other rigors of the drilling schedule are fueling meth use. Related crime and costs to users and others in their families drive up emergency and social service costs.

Hot Water

When oil and gas companies pump chemical solutions into the ground in order to release natural gas deposits, a widely-used process known as “fracking,” where do the chemicals and gas all go? A report issued recently by scientists at Duke University concludes that at least some of that toxic mix is entering water supplies. The levels of contamination are so high, in fact, that in some areas homeowners are able to light the water from their faucets on fire. This report seems to undermine an oft-repeated assurance from the oil and gas industry that fracking zones are far too removed from water tables to ever pose a threat to public drinking supplies.     

What's at Stake?

Our air, our water, and the safety of our communities!

  • The influx of workers brings an increase in crime, domestic violence, drug abuse and other social problems, resulting in both economic costs to manage these problems and bigger changes to communities.
  • Health problems from air pollution produce corresponding costs to local communities.
  • The character of communities can be harmed if not forever changed by the significant fiscal burdens from oil and gas development - burdens that the oil and gas industry does not take on along with their profits.

A Few Questions to Ponder:

  • Can strategic leasing and development of an area, such as through phased development and protection of important open spaces, reduce or prevent these costs?
  • Do the BLM’s recent reforms to oil and gas leasing, incorporating more thorough agency review and local government and public participation, provide vehicles for more careful development and control of these costs?
  • If Health Impact Analyses were part of evaluating oil and gas development, would that provide better information and avenues for protecting residents of communities?
  • Shouldn’t the oil and gas industry be required to control air pollution from its development operations?

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