By Mark Jaffe – The Denver Post – November 16, 2014
The shale drilling boom that is sweeping across the country and unlocking vast oil and gas reserves also has unleashed a wave of air pollutants. Scientific studies from research groups around the country are documenting higher emissions of volatile chemicals, including methane and air toxins, than estimated by state and federal regulators.
Scientists have been combing shale regions from Pennsylvania to Texas, Utah and Colorado, measuring leaks from tiny valves and using satellites to assay the air over entire regions.
“There are a whole lot of hydrocarbons coming out of these wells,” said Pieter Tans, a senior scientist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder. “They are contributing to air pollution on the Front Range.”
Colorado is on pace to have another record-setting year for oil production based on state data, and as the rigs, tanks and pipelines move closer to homes, concerns over the industry’s impacts grow.
In February, Colorado adopted the most comprehensive oil and gas air emission rule in the country and some companies are moving to clamp down on pollution.
Still, the scientific studies are finding oil and gas operations are the source of much larger volumes of pollutants than estimates compiled by state and federal regulators.
For people living near oil and gas operations it is more than a scientific exercise.
Len Toews was working in the front yard of his Fort Lupton home in 2012 when he was overcome by fumes from a K.P. Kauffman Co. oil and gas tank battery across the road.
“I came into the house and told my wife I was feeling strange,” Towes said. He ended up in the emergency room at Platte Valley Medical Center with a severe headache and nausea.
In 2013, after inspections prompted by a Toews complaint, state regulators cited the Denver-based Kauffman, for violations — including venting tank fumes for an entire weekend — and levied a $44,800 fine.
The accidental venting was caused by unscheduled pipeline shutdowns that backed up gas, said Kevin Kauffman, chief executive of the company.
Since then, new equipment has been installed to control pressure and emissions.
“We’ve tried to work with Mr. Toews,” Kauffman said. “We are committed to the highest level of public safety.”
Toews isn’t convinced.
“We don’t even open the windows anymore,” he said. “We don’t think it’s safe.”
What researchers are finding is that the levels of chemicals such as benzene and toluene, which may pose health risks, can be higher around oil and gas sites than in big cities.