Jimmy’s Colorado Politics Column | Oil & gas, public health not at odds

Written by on September 1, 2020

When he signed Senate Bill 19-181 into law, Gov. Jared Polis claimed the “oil and gas wars” were “over.”  Yet they really began that very day.

Yesterday, Colorado Politics published a cover story on “new ground rules” being developed by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) as it continues revamping Colorado’s regulatory makeup following the corrosive SB181.  The report is a must-read, but it reiterates the misconception that there’s a contradictory choice in oil and gas production.

The article offers a great understanding of the lay of the land, as viewed by COGCC, local governments and industry and environmental interests.  It particularly drills into COGCC’s current effort to revise its rules “focused primarily on permitting, notification, and locational reviews”; how complex and contentious the issues involved are, and the debate over “setbacks.” 

The article uses the phrase “Hobson’s Choice” to describe local governments caught between “protect(ing) the oil and gas tax revenues that provide substantial support for local government operations and public schools or protect[ing] the environment and safeguard public health, including air and water quality.”

Of course, local governments ought to be concerned about the tremendous economic benefits of oil and gas development beyond just tax revenue, but “Hobson’s Choice” is striking language.  As used, the term suggests two very difficult choices that seem to contradict one another, like “a rock and a hard place.”  The idea that tax revenue and the economy are somehow counter to environmental stewardship and public health is often thought of like this.  But it’s wrong.

In truth, there is no such contradiction — and industry practices and improvements have born this out.  The fundamental problem with SB181 is its overemphasis on regulation to the exclusion — and expense — of industry innovation.  The law assumes that burdensome regulation to protect public health and the environment is necessary, proper and trumps the economic benefits of oil and gas.

Oil and gas contribute roughly $30 billion annually to Colorado’s economy, tens of thousands of jobs and $1.2 billion yearly in revenue to state and local governments.  It is a driving source of funding for many educational institutions, from K-12 to higher ed.  There is no real debate over the industry’s financial benefits to communities across the state.  What SB181 purports to do is strengthen protections for the environment and public health — both arguments that particularly drive a new discussion for 2,000-foot setback being considered by COGCC.

Since I was born in 1990, America’s oil and gas industry has dramatically increased production while simultaneously reducing emissions.  Nationally, methane emissions are down 14 percent since then, one of the positive results of more than $339 billion poured into environmental performance improvements in operations, facilities and fuels during that same time.  Industry is constantly innovating as ever more consumers demand greater environmental protection.

Public health is likewise already of paramount concern.  Because oil and gas have invested more than $160 billion on cleaning up fuel sources since 1990, today’s gasoline emits far less sulfur and airborne toxins than when those investments began.  This isn’t driven by stricter regulations but by consumer and community pressure, leading industry groups to regularly encourage best practices and technological improvements.

The American Petroleum Institute, a prominent advocacy organization offering industry guidance, has generated more than 700 standards to better operational practices and environmental and public health protections.  Among these are API’s guidelines for “Managing Environmental Aspects Associated with Exploration and Production Operations Including Hydraulic Fracturing,” which offers detailed fracking “recommendations on baseline groundwater sampling, storage and management of fluids and chemicals, air emissions, and noise and visual resources.”  Similar recommendations “ensure the protection and isolation of groundwater and that produced fluids are isolated and contained.”

Despite voters resoundingly rejecting a 1,500-foot production setback in 2018, environmental groups are again pushing COGCC to approve the even-larger 2,000-foot setback.  They rely heavily on the worst-case, hypothetical scenario in single, 2018 CU study based on modeling.  Yet as a 2017 CDPHE report analyzing over 10,000 actual air measurements found, there is no need to take such drastic steps “for public health.”  And why should we, when industry is already leading the charge?

As COGCC considers their many rulemakings in the coming days, and especially on the setback, they ought to consider all these factors and abandon the harmful, overburdensome approach.  Economic benefits are not opposite environmental and public health.  We can — and already do — have both.

Click here to read Jimmy’s August 31 column at Colorado Politics, a sister publication of The Washington Examiner.

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