The People of America's Oil and Natural Gas Indusry

Energy, Science and Public Health

Uni Blake

Uni Blake
Posted April 13, 2017

Public health is a sensitive topic and understandably so. Clean air and water is important to everyone, which is why our industry has put together an effective suite of standards and best practices designed to foster safe and responsible development of our nation’s oil and natural gas resources.

Protecting public health in areas where our companies have active oil and natural gas operations is significant for another reason: Many of our employees live in those areas. They recreate in parks and participate in community activities that may be near active energy operations. Their children attend local schools and daycare centers.

Recognizing the above, oil and natural gas legislation that may be intended to protect public health must be grounded in science. All of us can become emotional about protecting our families’ health, yet laws and regulations should be evidence-based, using the best available science.

Health is present in energy-related conversations across the country, including Colorado, where lawmakers considered legislation to put new setback requirements on certain oil and gas operations.

Currently, energy development must be 1,000 feet – more than the length of a football field – away from school buildings, though operators may request a variance from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). Proposed legislation would make the 1,000-foot setback mandatory, eliminating the ability of the COGCC to make adjustments. It also would measure the setback from the edge of school property, not the school itself. Tracee Bentley, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, during a Senate hearing this week:

“We looked at the school property sizes in Weld County, just to give us an idea. We chose Weld because that is where 90% of Colorado’s oil is produced, along with 35% of Colorado’s gas. In Weld County, there are 86 school properties, and 35 of them are 10 acres or larger (including 17 that are 20 acres or larger). Based on the large sizes of school properties and number of schools in Weld County alone, you can see the significant impact this bill will have on oil and natural gas development.”

The question, then, is what does the science say? In February, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment (CDPHE) issued a report that found the “risk of harmful health effects is low for residents living near oil and gas operations.” The assessment said “results from exposure and health effect studies do not indicate the need for immediate public health action …”

It’s important to continue monitoring, yet research is showing that air quality values in areas of energy activity remain below levels that are protective to public health. Indeed, the Colorado report mirrors the findings of a screening health study in the Barnett Shale conducted a few years ago by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which concluded:

Based on the air monitoring data used in this evaluation and associated risk assessment results, there is no substantial health risk from acute or chronic exposure to air emissions from NGOs (natural gas operations).

Both studies help keep public health discussions associated with oil and natural gas development focused on rational analysis. Hazard assessments should be accompanied by exposure analysis that accounts for frequency, duration and magnitude to determine whether a health effect is possible. Meanwhile, we should closely examine the foundations of studies seeking to identify possible connections between industry activities and health conditions. Often these studies rely on models that use proximity and other factors to represent exposure. In turn, the models rely on assumptions that must be checked for validity.

A point worth repeating: Proper, scientific analysis is critically important in the discussion of public health and energy development. The opposite may be seen in a recent study purporting to link oil and gas activity with childhood leukemia, which drew a frank rebuttal from CDPHE. Dr. Larry Wolk, the department's executive director and chief medical officer, listed flaws in the leukemia study including:

  • A reliance on administrative data, not accounting for individual exposures to other potential cancer-causing substances.
  • It compared leukemia cases to other cancer cases instead of comparing them to healthy people, making the findings more difficult to interpret.
  • Its findings were driven by only 16 cases, significantly limiting the strength of its conclusions.
  • It didn’t adequately address additional or alternative explanations for its findings, such as differences in population demographics, smoking history and exposure to other environmental factors such as agricultural chemicals and traffic emissions.

Wolk:

“We support studies that evaluate the potential impact of environmental contaminants on public health ... However, this study’s conclusions are misleading in that the study questions a possible association between oil and gas operations and childhood leukemia; it does not prove or establish such a connection. The lack of a conclusive association is as a result of many limitations.”

Our industry welcomes the broader public health discussion. Protecting health is a top priority for our companies, which recognize that support from hosting communities is essential for long-term relationships that accompany oil and natural gas development.

Look for more posts on energy and public health in the weeks and months ahead.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Uni Blake is a scientific adviser in regulatory and scientific affairs at API. As a toxicologist her focus includes exposure and risk assessments as they relate to environmental and public health. Uni graduated from the College Wooster with a bachelors in chemistry and the American University with a masters in toxicology. Currently, she is working on a doctorate in Public Health in Environmental and Occupation Health at George Washington University. She lives in the Northern Neck of Virginia with her husband and children, where she enjoys working in the yard and taking care of her flower and vegetable gardens.