Conservationists charge Governor Hickenlooper with ‘greenwashing’ oil and gas groundwater contamination

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From the Summit County Citizens Voice (Bob Berwyn):

In [an] ad, posted on the Colorado Oil & Gas Association website, Hickenlooper makes a flat-out claim that there hasn’t been any groundwater contamination associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing since 2008. You can listen to Hickenlooper’s message here.

The message touted Colorado’s new oil and gas drilling regulations which are intended to protect the environment as well as to give industry regulatory certainty. The context of the message was to advertise Colorado as open for the oil and gas business business, but the problem is that Hickenlooper’s statement is not completely accurate or truthful. In fact, there have been dozens of documented cases of groundwater contamination in the state since 2008 from leaky pipes, corroded tanks and other problems that are common in any industrial setting. “There are spills on a weekly basis that affect groundwater,” said Earthjustice attorney Mike Freeman, adding that state records show there were 58 spills from oil and gas operations in 2011.

“The first step is admitting we have a problem,” Freeman said. “It’s safe to say, the disclosure rules are not preventing drilling operations from contaminating water,” he said, adding that the state’s rules are only a first step toward ensuring environmental protection. “The state’s own records show that spills and releases routinely affect ground water. Statements like those in the COGA ad will only hurt the state’s efforts to show it is responsive to legitimate concerns about and gas development in Colorado communities.”

More coverage from Bruce Finley writing for The Denver Post. From the article:

“It is certainly true that spills and releases associated with equipment failures at drilling sites have occurred and have impacted shallow groundwater,” Hickenlooper spokeswoman Megan Castle said. “That’s a very different process from drilling and hydraulic fracturing.”[…]

A letter to Hickenlooper from 13 environmental groups says the COGA ad “misleads the public by ignoring the high incidence of groundwater contamination from spills and releases of toxic chemicals at or near drilling sites.” The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, charged with regulating and simultaneously encouraging oil and gas activity, has documented numerous spills that have contaminated soil and water. These include instances where petroleum liquids and fracking wastewater were spilled. Corroding tanks and pipelines and leaking waste pits have led to spills of toxic material, including cancer-causing benzene.

More coverage from the Switchboard (Amy Mall). From the article:

In Colorado, archaic rules allow toxic oil and gas facilities to be as close as 150 feet to a child’s bedroom window. These operations can be in someone’s backyard and on their property without consent if a family does not own the rights to the oil and gas beneath its land–and most Coloradans do not.

The COGA ads tout the latest Colorado rule requiring disclosure of fracking chemicals. While disclosure is essential to preserve the public’s right to know about chemicals in their community, and NRDC calls for nationwide disclosure of fracking chemicals for better regulation of this industry, disclosure is only one part of what’s needed in a comprehensive regulatory structure to protect health and the environment from the dangers of fracking. Disclosure alone does not prevent drinking water contamination–rather it lets citizens know what chemicals might be in their drinking water after it has been contaminated. And many of the chemicals can still be kept secret by oil and gas companies.

The risks are real. From 2009-2011, there were more than a thousand spills related to oil and gas operations in Colorado–many of which impacted groundwater and/or surface water with potentially highly toxic materials. Last September, the Denver Post reported that four oil and gas companies alone had 350 spills in Colorado in less than two years. The Post highlighted one spill that contaminated groundwater with benzene–a known carcinogen. In 2010, a Las Animas County landowner found approximately 500 gallons of grayish brown murky water in his cistern that he believes is linked to nearby hydraulic fracturing. This family has extensive water testing documentation going back many years, verifying that their water was always clean and clear until the nearby fracking took place.

The newspaper ad states it is “brought to you as a public service,” which makes it sound like a “public service announcement,” but this is misleading. While the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission decided that it is okay for elected officials to use their personal credibility and the position of their office to better educate the public on issues relating to their government position, in its decision, the Ethics Commissions used examples of public service announcements that discuss the importance of voting, filling out the census form, retrieving unclaimed property, and discouraging the illegal use of alcohol.

None of those examples promote one industry or mislead the public with a false sense of security about considerable and well-documented public health and environmental threats.

More oil and gas coverage here and here.

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