Colorado has worked hard, albeit fitfully, to move the oil-gas fracking industry toward operating in a safer, more health-protective fashion in the state. Rules limiting flaring and venting, and for increased setbacks, help protect public health and are to be applauded.

But now, outside operatives protecting the industry are jeopardizing these hard-fought public health victories. One such operative is the Texas Public Policy Foundation, an Austin-based nonprofit that promotes fossil fuels. 

With deep pockets (including large donations from oil-gas groups such as ExxonMobil and Chevron) and sophisticated information (many would say “disinformation”) campaigns, the Foundation seeks to influence public opinion around the country, backs lawsuits attacking renewable energies, and crafts legislation for policymakers who happily accept campaign contributions in return for promoting and protecting this extractive industry. 

For example, the Texas Public Policy Foundation is suing the Environmental Protection Agency, claiming it is wrong for the EPA to categorize greenhouse gases as a danger. The Foundation’s position flies in the face of consensus among the vast majority of scientists and public health experts who link greenhouse gases to human health problems and global climate change. The Foundation is also suing the federal government on behalf of several commercial fishing organizations to stop offshore wind projects in New England.

The Foundation even tries to make a moral case for the extraction and use of fossil fuels, tying this source of climate-changing energy to American economic prosperity, and urging legislators to deny funding for renewable energy projects. In reality, many leading economists say that a quicker transition to renewable energies will stimulate economic growth and ensure American energy independence far better and faster than a continued reliance on fossil fuels.

One of the Foundation’s clearest and most worrisome goals is to make sure oil and gas companies continue to operate unimpeded and without limitation. That includes companies in Colorado, such as the Suncor refinery in Commerce City, and anywhere else oil and gas stakes a claim. 

In Colorado specifically, the Texas Public Policy Foundation has called for relaxing restrictions on the oil-gas fracking industry. This is problematic for several reasons, but principally because it would negatively impact the health of those same residents the state has been trying to protect with legislation such as SB-181, which shifted the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s mission from serving the oil-gas industry to protecting the health, safety, and welfare of Coloradans.

The health risks associated with gas extraction and development cannot be overstated. For the past 10 years, our organization, the Environmental Health Project, has studied the health impacts from oil-gas fracking in states and countries harboring this extractive industry. We and our colleagues have heard first-hand and witnessed the devastating health harms many residents have experienced, not just in Colorado but nationwide, such as an area of southwestern Pennsylvania that has seen an alarming rise in the incidence of rare childhood cancer near oil-gas development.

We talked to families who cannot drink the contaminated well water coming out of their taps or use this water for bathing because it causes skin rashes and other health issues. 

Eliza Griswold’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Amity and Prosperity erases any doubts about the fracking-health connection by illuminating the devastating effects the oil-gas industry has had on the health of fracking’s unsuspecting neighbors.

☀ MORE IN OPINION

If eyewitness accounts aren’t enough, consider this: More than 30 epidemiological studies — the gold standard of environmental research — have shown correlations between living near oil-gas fracking and a host of adverse health issues. Health impacts include asthma and upper and lower respiratory complaints, hospitalizations for heart failure and mortality from heart attacks, low birth weights and intellectual and developmental disabilities, congenital heart defects and neural tube defects, and mental health symptoms. A number of these fracking-health studies, with their alarming findings, focused on high-density fracking sites right here in Colorado.

While no research has established a safe distance between oil and gas infrastructure and human activity, Colorado’s current environmental rules offer residents at least some protections from the volatile organic compounds, carcinogenic substances, and other dangerous pollution these facilities regularly emit. The work of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and other special interest groups friendly to industry put oil-gas fracking profits, and the industry’s agenda to maintain our society’s reliance on fossil fuel, ahead of public health, in part by undermining existing and future protections. 

Colorado policymakers and residents alike must be vigilant and band together against such front groups and their self-serving motives. Our health and the health of our families, friends, and neighbors hang in the balance.


Harv Teitelbaum, of Evergreen, is a board member of the Environmental Health Project.


Alison L. Steele, of Pittsburgh, is executive director of the Environmental Health Project.

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Harv Teitelbaum

Harv Teitelbaum, of Evergreen, is a board member of the Environmental Health Project.

Alison L. Steele

Alison L. Steele, of Pittsburgh, is executive director of the Environmental Health Project.