Doug Conarroe: Anti-fracking doomsday warnings full of gas

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Hardly a day goes by that these pages aren’t filled with doomsday opinions related to the evils of fracking. You’ve read them — fracking has no benefit, destroys property values, will give our children cancer and will destroy the planet via fugitive releases of methane.

Ignored is the empirical evidence showing Boulder’s overall air quality has benefitted from fracking. Regionally, decades worth of evidence shows no historical (short-term or long-term) link between increases in oil and gas operations and increases in any types of cancers. And, surprise of surprises, nationwide fugitive methane releases resulting from oil and gas activity have decreased since 1999.

The local beneficiaries of fracking are the hundreds of thousands of Boulder and downwind residents (like me) who are no longer forced to breathe toxic compound releases from the Valmont Generating Station. As a result of fracking, the plant now burns 100 percent natural gas, which not only emits less CO2 per BTU than coal, but also emits exponentially fewer airborne particulates and toxins into Boulder Valley neighborhoods.

Cheap and plentiful natural gas, which in the case of the Valmont plant is largely sourced locally through regional pipelines, including the NoCo Power and Coors/Golden pipelines, has not only contributed to U.S. reductions in CO2 emissions but has almost eliminated air emissions of hydrogen fluoride, hydrochloric acid, lead, mercury and manganese. According to the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory, in 2007 the coal-fired Valmont plant’s single boiler emitted into the air 5,747 pounds of hydrogen fluoride, 2,773 pounds of hydrochloric acid, 44 pounds of mercury compounds and 24 pounds of lead. In 2017, burning cleaner natural gas instead of coal meant that the plant’s yearly air emissions showed less than 4 pounds of those four toxic compounds combined. That translates to a reduction of hundreds, if not thousands, of premature deaths locally.

Healthwise, two decades of statistics from the National Institute of Health, Center for Disease Control and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment show no historical link between increases in Colorado oil and gas operations and increases in per capita cancer rates (any type of cancer affecting any age). The opposite is true — cancer rates have decreased. In Weld County, where the number of active oil and gas wells has doubled in the last 18 years — from 12,000 in 2000 to 23,000 in 2018 — the per capita cancer rate from roughly the same period (2003 to 2015) is down 13 percent, from 440 incidents of cancer per 100,000 people to 380 incidents.

Farther south in El Paso County, where there are no (zero) active oil and gas wells, the 2003-2015 cancer rate is down only 10 percent — from 479 to 428. (Yes, residents of El Paso County’s “cleaner” environs experience higher rates of cancer per capita even though that county’s demographics mirror Weld County’s.)

If fracktivists’ claims were true, more oil and gas wells would equate to more cancer. But the raw numbers, observations and scientific studies produced by the NIH/CDC/CDPHE don’t support that. That’s why those health authorities have not halted fracking. (They would if the opposite were true.)

Additionally, decreased property values resulting from fracking have not panned out in Weld County. A 2014 Colorado State University study showed that Weld County homes near oil and gas operations went up in value. Even the dire predictions of decreased property values resulting from the horrific Firestone gas line explosion didn’t materialize. A year after the tragic accident, the Longmont Times-Call recently reported that homes in the neighborhood were being sold “for decent profits.”

Lastly, while it’s true that methane leaking from pipelines and well sites releases a potent greenhouse gas, a 2017 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study showed that methane releases attributed to oil and gas have gone down since 1999.

This decrease in oil and gas methane in the atmosphere poses a conundrum for anti-fracking reactionaries, because the number of active natural gas wells in the U.S. has increased from 300,000 in 1999 to 574,000 in 2015. Over the same time period, substituting natural gas for coal has led to a 6 percent decrease in CO2 being released in the U.S., from 7,000 MMT in 1999 to 6,600 MMT in 2015.

Because of plentiful natural gas, the U.S. now emits about the same amount of CO2 in 2018 as we did in 1990. We’re not even in the Paris Climate Accord, yet in 2017 we kicked everyone else’s butts when it came to decreases in CO2 emissions. Go figure.

Doug Conarroe lives in Lafayette.


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