Oil and gas development often is touted as the economic driver of rural Western communities despite the important economic role of locally owned, amenity-based development, which includes tourism, skiing, biking, retirees, location-neutral entrepreneurs, agriculture, recreation, hunting and fishing. While oil and gas development has economic benefits, it also has significant costs that threaten our water and air quality, public health and quality of life.
When oil and gas companies drill through potable water strata, does this cause the pollution of domestic wells as seen in various locations? A report issued recently by scientists at Duke University concludes that at least some of that toxic mix is entering water supplies — enough to pollute drinking water.
Oil and gas development is a known contributor to air pollution. Of course, this isn’t breaking news if you’re a resident of Wyoming’s Green River Basin or Utah’s Uinta Basin. Both areas are sparsely populated but have experienced some of the highest levels of air pollution in the country — exceeding that even of major cities like Los Angeles. Fugitive emissions from widespread oil and gas development is the primary cause. And the air pollution is doing more than mar scenic vistas; it also is causing or aggravating respiratory and other health problems among local residents.
Drugs and crime
Many rural communities are experiencing a rise in drug use and drug-related crimes that either correspond with new oil and gas development or, in some cases, is directly linked to development in existing fields. According to a 2007 study, criminal cases involving meth in Mesa County increased by more than 40 percent between 1999 and 2007. The peak came in 2006, when meth was a factor in 89.3 percent of cases before the county’s courts. Related crime and costs to users and others in their families drive up emergency and social service costs.
Residents of Routt County are here in large part because of the beauty of this natural environment. Skiers, bikers and other tourists come here for much the same reason. One of our most inspiring views is from the top of Storm Peak. Would a view that included oil rigs on every 40-acre parcel be attractive to tourists? Would a kayaker enjoy seeing an oil well on the bank of the Yampa River? Would a skier looking west from the top of Mount Werner think that a regional haze from oil and gas development was a good reason to book a reservation for the next season?
More food for thought
■ Strategic leasing and development of a region — such as through phased development and protection of important open spaces — could reduce or prevent these costs.
■ The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s recommendations (they are not laws) are not really enforceable in view of the fact there currently are only 12 field inspectors statewide who are available to inspect 45,000 active wells in the state.
■ The BLM’s recent reforms to oil and gas leasing, incorporating more thorough agency review and local government and public participation, could provide vehicles for more careful development and control of these costs.
■ Health impact analysis could be part of the evaluation of oil and gas development.
■ The oil and gas industry could be required to control air pollution from its development and production operations.
Oil and gas development does bring revenue to our community. The question remains: Is it enough? The character of communities can be harmed, if not forever changed, by the significant fiscal burdens from oil and gas development, burdens that the oil and gas industry does not take on along with their profits.
Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley