Editorial: Take air quality issues seriously
March 21, 2012
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A growing body of evidence that suggests significant air pollution adjacent to oil and gas wells where hydraulic fracturing is used merits closer attention — both from officials who regulate operations and the industry itself.
As the boom in oil and gas operations has spread across Colorado, we have maintained that drilling should be encouraged and face minimal regulatory roadblocks, unless there are findings that demonstrate serious environmental impacts.
Unlike hypothetical or incidental examples of fracturing affecting groundwater, the findings coming in regarding the practice's impact on air quality indicate that it is a potentially serious issue.
The most recent case in point is a finding that people living within a half-mile of fracking operations on the Western Slope were exposed to air pollution that was five times greater than the federal standard.
That study, which examined air-quality data gathered near Battlement Mesa in Garfield County, was conducted by a researcher with the University of Colorado Denver School of Public Health.
"Our data show that it is important to include air pollution in the national dialogue on natural-gas development that has focused largely on water," said Lisa McKenzie, the study's lead author.
It is part of an increasing number of findings that suggest more must be done to address air-quality impacts from drilling.
High levels of winter ozone pollution have been detected in gas fields in Utah and Wyoming.
And a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study last winter showed certain levels of air pollution — propane, ethane and butane, among them — in the town of Erie exceeded levels in Houston and Los Angeles. That review did not definitively link the increased pollution to drilling, but the detection of compounds typically associated with the industry is hard to ignore.
"We've also seen studies from Texas showing high emissions from oil and gas fields," said Gwen Lachelt, a director of the Durango-based Oil and Gas Accountability Project, told The Denver Post's Mark Jaffe. "It is getting to the point that the industry has to be able to demonstrate their facilities aren't going to impact public health."
Industry officials seem to be heading down that path — either by choice or by force of proposed federal rules to control air pollution from drilling.
To that end, we're pleased to hear the industry is working with Colorado State University on an air-quality study and is amenable to changes should they be warranted.
Gov. John Hickenlooper and legislative leaders have also formed a task force to address air quality and other drilling issues. But they must report back with their recommendations next month.
The building docket of evidence regarding air quality near drilling sites and potential for health impacts merits closer attention and will very likely require action as new evidence and new abatement technologies become available.