OPINION: Proposition 112 — Not Fracking — Threatens Coloradans’ Health

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Alex Epstein President, Center for Industrial Progress
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Colorado currently has some of the strictest policies governing oil and gas production, including fracking and barring development within 500 feet of occupied buildings and 1000 feet of schools and hospitals. That’s substantially more than the national average of 308 feet.

But now, Colorado voters are being asked to decide whether to extend those setbacks even further. Proposition 112 would increase oil and gas setbacks to 2,500 feet, thereby banning most oil and gas development — and destroying many of the more than 230,000 jobs supported by the oil and gas industry.

Proposition 112 supporters say all this is justified by the better health it will bring to Coloradans. According to Colorado Rising, the leading advocate of the initiative, “The distance of 2,500 feet … aligns with a growing body of medical studies that show an increased risk of negative health impacts within this zone.”

There are two problems with the health argument for Proposition 112.

  1. The health benefits are imaginary.
  2. Proposition 112 will cause enormous harm to health by increasing poverty.

Let’s start with the health benefits of Proposition 112, which are supposed to come from improving air quality for Coloradans near oil and gas wells.

When oil and gas come out of the ground it’s possible for “volatile organic compounds” (VOCs) such as the carcinogen Benzene, to be released into the air.

VOCs are not unique to oil and gas projects. Benzene and other VOCs are emitted from thousands of everyday sources like car traffic, gas stations, glues, paints and detergents. In all cases they can be dangerous — but only if they exist in high enough quantities.

Should Coloradans be afraid of VOCs from oil and gas more than 500 feet away?

To answer that question, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) examined 10,000 air samples from areas where there is substantial oil and gas activity. They found that concentrations of potentially hazardous substances were at worst one-fourth safety thresholds and in many cases one-five-thousandth safety thresholds.

But what about the “growing body of medical studies” Proposition 112 supporters say demonstrates “an increased risk of negative health impacts” from shale energy development 500 to 2,500 feet away?

Try reading one of these “studies” carefully and you’ll see that they are not cause for alarm. For example, a recent paper by University of Colorado assistant professor Lisa McKenzie has been used by Proposition 112 supporters to claim that oil and gas development beyond 500 feet significantly increases the risk of cancer.

Not only has that paper been rightly criticized for extreme speculation; it doesn’t even apply to Proposition 112. The paper speculates only that populations living less than 500 feet from an oil and gas facility will have their normal 30-40% risk of cancer go down by .1 percent if oil and gas development is prohibited.

It is for this phony health benefit that Proposition 112 supporters are trying to destroy most oil and gas development–and therefore many of their neighbors’ jobs. But what about the health harms of destroying them?

Since natural gas is by far the dominant source of energy for Colorado, banning local natural gas drilling will raise energy prices throughout the state. That harms everyone–especially healthcare providers. Hospitals are some of the largest consumers of electricity, with energy costs often making up half of their budgets.

Any increase in the price of energy means that hospitals have to reduce the medical services they offer or charge patients more: either way, fewer Coloradans will be able to get the healthcare they need.

Worse, Proposition 112 will harm health by impoverishing Coloradans inside and outside of oil and gas.

The oil and gas industry is one of the most important  in Colorado, directly or indirectly employing hundreds of thousands of residents, benefiting hundreds of thousands of mineral rights owners who have received hundreds of millions in royalties from the industry, and producing billions in GDP and tax revenues.

One recent study on the impact of Proposition 112 estimated that it would cost 33,500 to 43,000 jobs in the first year and 115,000 to 147,800 jobs by 2030, while reducing GDP in the state by at least $110 billion between 2019 and 2030.

This means Proposition 112 will cause a lot of preventable poverty.

We know that lower incomes are associated with worse health outcomes since income impacts things like our ability to afford healthy food, preventative health care, quality health insurance, and costly medical treatments.

For example, poor adults report being in fair or poor health five times as often adults in families making more than $100,000. For children, lower incomes are associated with higher rates of asthma, heart conditions, and other ailments. And lower incomes translate into significantly lower expected lifespans.

These differences don’t just apply to the very rich and the very poor either. The less wealthy you are, the less healthy you are: even Americans in the top 10 percent of incomes have worse health outcomes on average than Americans in the top 1% of incomes. Any policy that harms prosperity harms health.

If Proposition 112 is passed there is no guarantee that even one person will live an extra month because a distant oil rig was destroyed. But there is a guarantee that millions will suffer unnecessarily from increased poverty — health-wise and across the board.

By seeking to deprive Colorado of affordable, reliable energy–and the prosperity that comes from producing that energy–it is the advocates of Proposition 112 who are the real dangers to Coloradans’ health.

Alex Epstein is author of The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels and founder of the Center for Industrial Progress.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.