When Colorado officials announced that they would set up a blue-ribbon taskforce charged with making informed recommendations on oil and gas development in the state, there were high hopes. In fact, I commended the state for establishing a strong procedure and promising mechanism for informed decision-making for fracking in Colorado. What an opportunity, I thought, for a science-informed decision in an otherwise science-lacking debate. Now that the commission has issued recommendations, it’s worth revisiting what happened. Did the taskforce succeed? Let’s walk through its moves.
To ensure the taskforce would by informed by science, it should include technical experts. Sounds reasonable, right? After all, science-related decisions often include science or technical advisory committees—FDA regulation of drugs, development of our dietary guidelines, and setting of air pollution standards, to name a few. Given the technical nature of hydraulic fracturing and other stages of oil and gas development, scientific input seems like a given.
So were scientists put on the taskforce, when it was announced last year? Not really. As I wrote when the taskforce was announced, only a few members had any sort of technical training and there were no independent technical experts from Colorado’s many universities with relevant expertise. This was disappointing news for a taskforce charged with thinking about the safety and public health associated with a technical process with diverse impacts.
Other scientists thought so too. Twenty-four Colorado experts wrote a letter asking for significant scientific input into the taskforce and its recommendations. “Only with complete access to the best available science and scientific advice,” the scientists wrote, “can the Task Force be responsive to the needs of all stakeholders while protecting our communities’ health, safety, economy, and the environment.”
But how did the taskforce do on its actual task? The taskforce was charged with making policy recommendations to address concerns of Colorado residents and disputes between them and the oil and gas industry. Last month, the taskforce sent nine measures to the Governor’s desk. The proposals revised the permitting processed and provided for more local input into siting decisions; however, the proposals fail to address the major concerns of communities.
Talking to the Denver Post, Gwen Lachelt, a La Plata County commissioner and task force co-chairwoman said, “I am disappointed. We really needed to do something for the people who are affected by these issues, and we really didn’t do that.”
Missing the mark (but drilling anyway?)
What do Coloradans want? We know from past ballot proposals, bans, and moratoria, that Colorado citizens are concerned about their health and safety. They want to know the impacts of oil and gas development on their air quality, water quality, and public health. Many communities were pushing for moratoria on drilling because they didn’t feel that they had sufficient information to answer these questions. Like many communities across the country, they want more scientific input into decision making around oil and gas development. And the taskforce has done little to address these.
To be fair, some on the taskforce pushed for measures that would require more testing of air and water quality, evaluate health risks, and grant more local control over decision making, but these proposals, unfortunately, largely didn’t make it to Governor’s desk, since a two-thirds majority vote of the taskforce was required.
For now, it appears that concerned citizens of Colorado are getting a bad deal. Their ballot proposals that sought to address some of the health and safety concerns around drilling were withdrawn in exchange for a promise of a better process for managing oil and gas development. But so far, this part of the deal hasn’t been delivered. We can say that the taskforce has more work to do. Colorado is still in need of science-based recommendations to inform its oil and gas development. I hope this is not the last we see of efforts in Colorado to develop a more constructive and democratic process around oil and gas development.