DENVER — Environmentalists say newly proposed state-sponsored studies of emissions tied to oil and gas development announced Wednesday are too little, too late, and amount to using people as "lab rats" to determine if they may be suffering health problems because of drilling.
The studies were announced during hearings by regulators this week that questioned the science needed for making rules.
The project is expected to provide information about how oil and gas emissions travel and their behavior in areas along the northern Front Range, which has become a hotbed for drilling. A second phase is expected to assess possible health effects.
State officials said Wednesday that testimony during this week's Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission rulemaking hearing reinforced views of industry and environmental experts that better science is needed for oil and gas emissions.
"This study marks another important step in our aggressive efforts to ensure oil and gas development is conducted with the highest standards of environmental protection," said Mike King, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources.
Mike Chiropolos, who represented a coalition of environmental groups at the hearing, said heart-wrenching testimony from property owners who believe they have been harmed by drilling operations failed to sway regulators who are considering exceptions to the rules.
"Everybody agrees more studies are needed, but the state has not been doing its job. Regulators have been hearing from citizens of Colorado who don't like living in a science experiment while these studies continue. They don't like being lab rats," Chiropolos said after the meeting.
In May, a Denver district court judge threw out a lawsuit filed by a family from the Western Slope claiming oil and gas drilling caused illnesses. The judge said lawyers for the family failed to provide enough evidence of chemical exposure or any proof the drilling company was responsible. The family said fumes and water contamination caused burning eyes and throats, rashes and headaches.
King said Wednesday that strong science is needed along with strong regulation to build public confidence in an industry that is critical to Colorado's economy.
Last year, Colorado developed a national model for the disclosure of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing fluids. Regulators also opened a water-quality database to the public and strengthened rules to reduce emissions.
This week, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission approved rules that the commission says are among the strongest in the country for monitoring and protecting groundwater.
The commission also is considering steps to limit drilling impacts near occupied buildings following concerns from property owners that such drilling would harm their quality of life.
Dr. Chris Urbina, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, said his agency will work with Colorado State University on the study. It will be similar to an ongoing university-led study of oil and gas emissions in Garfield County on Colorado's Western Slope.
The first phase of the study is projected to span three years, from July through June 2016. A second phase to develop a health risk assessment would begin in 2016.
Gov. John Hickenlooper, an industry supporter, is seeking $1.3 million from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission's Environmental Response Fund to get the project off the ground. The money for that fund comes from oil and gas development.