Fact Check: Are fracking operations less than 2,500 feet from occupied buildings unsafe?

Out of Gas


Steven Todd (guest columnist)

Media Publication:

Boulder Daily Camera

Originally Published On:

July 21, 2018


Out of Gas

Claim #1: Fracking operations less than 2,500 feet from occupied buildings are unsafe.  Fracking is dangerous to everyone's health . . .  and there are now sufficient health studies that conclusively show the numerous health impacts of fracking — including heightened risk for asthma, low birth weight, birth defects, and leukemia — for those living within a half mile or even three-quarters of a mile from fracking sites.

Fact:  EAP debunked these claims three weeks ago. To reiterate, there is no science backing up these claims. Last year, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) published the results of its research into the health impacts of oil and gas development, finding the risk of harmful effects “is low for Coloradans living near oil and gas operations.” CDPHE evaluated health risks from certain substances emitted from oil and gas operations and reviewed other studies of health effects possibly associated with living near oil and gas operations.

 In 2016, CDPHE looked at Weld County, which produces 90 percent of the state’s oil.  It found that Weld County does not have significantly more, and in many cases, it has fewer, instances of asthma, cancer, birth defects, infant mortality and low birth weights than other Front Range counties. This shows “there's no reason to believe that there is a causal relationship between oil and gas operations and chronic diseases or cancers," said Larry Wolk, CDPHE’s chief medical officer and executive director.

The author appears to be referring to studies conducted by Lisa McKenzie, a researcher whose work is frequently cited by anti-fracking activists despite those studies being both criticized by the state health department and downplayed by McKenzie herself.

In 2012, McKenzie released a highly-criticized study purportedly showing that people who live within a half-mile of natural gas wells may have an increased lifetime cancer risk. The study exaggerated emissions from well development by at least 10 times, failed to take into account exhaust fumes from a major interstate highway less than a mile away, and failed to note the cancer risk detected was not above the national average. McKenzie conceded the study’s flaws, noting some of the same concerns raised by her critics.

McKenzie released another study in 2014 finding a possible connection between congenital heart defects and proximity to an oil and gas wells.  Wolk criticized the study, saying that readers “could easily be misled to become overly concerned,” that the "rates of these different health concerns or issues in some of these oil and gas-rich communities were no different from those that were not in oil and gas-rich communities," and that the study ignored many factors besides natural gas development.

Last year, McKenzie released a study trying to link oil and natural gas development to childhood leukemia.  CDPHE again criticized the study’s design and data analysis and said the possible link between childhood cancer and high-concentration oil and gas development relied upon only 16 cases.

The “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,” Wolk said.  McKenzie conceded these flaws, stating the study does “not provide enough evidence to say that living near oil and gas wells causes leukemia.”

Rating: Out of gas

Claim #2: Natural gas is worse for the environment than coal.

Burning natural gas for energy results in fewer emissions of nearly all types of air pollutants and carbon dioxide (CO2) than burning coal, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.  Although some natural gas leaks into the atmosphere from oil and gas wells, pipelines, storage tanks, pipelines, and processing plants – only about 4 percent of the total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2015 – the oil and natural gas industry takes steps to prevent leaks.  

Colorado was the first state in the country to pass methane regulations requiring the capture of air pollutants released during oil and natural gas operations. Colorado rules are stricter than federal regulations, requiring that 95% of pollutants from oil and natural gas operations are captured, which decreases methane emissions by over 60,000 tons.  Cutting-edge technology and strict regulations have cut leakage rates by 75 percent in Colorado, according to Climate Wire. Even Conservation Colorado has stated: "Colorado’s forward-thinking work on our state rules has provided a model for the nation, and we have proven that methane rules can coexist with responsible energy development."

Rating: Out of gas