There is something unusual about the latest newspaper and radio advertisements from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA). While there is nothing new about the oil and gas industry spending money to convince Americans that fracking is safe, what sets the latest ads apart from typical industry propaganda is that the spokesperson in these ads is Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper.
In the radio ad, the Governor states that Colorado has not had "one instance of groundwater contamination associated with drilling and hydraulic fracturing" since Colorado enacted some new rules in 2008. It's true that Colorado's 2008 rules were a vast improvement compared to the previous rules.
But that doesn't mean that the rules are strong enough, that all fracking activities are safe in Colorado, or that human health and the environment are sufficiently protected. The 2008 rules were a step in the right direction, but did not go far enough to protect communities and their citizens from dangerous air pollution, groundwater contamination, and enormous amounts of toxic waste.
In Colorado, archaic rules allow toxic oil and gas facilities to be as close as 150 feet to a child's bedroom window. These operations can be in someone's backyard and on their property without consent if a family does not own the rights to the oil and gas beneath its land--and most Coloradans do not.
The COGA ads tout the latest Colorado rule requiring disclosure of fracking chemicals. While disclosure is essential to preserve the public's right to know about chemicals in their community, and NRDC calls for nationwide disclosure of fracking chemicals for better regulation of this industry, disclosure is only one part of what's needed in a comprehensive regulatory structure to protect health and the environment from the dangers of fracking. Disclosure alone does not prevent drinking water contamination--rather it lets citizens know what chemicals might be in their drinking water after it has been contaminated. And many of the chemicals can still be kept secret by oil and gas companies.
The risks are real. From 2009-2011, there were more than a thousand spills related to oil and gas operations in Colorado--many of which impacted groundwater and/or surface water with potentially highly toxic materials. Last September, the Denver Post reported that four oil and gas companies alone had 350 spills in Colorado in less than two years. The Post highlighted one spill that contaminated groundwater with benzene--a known carcinogen. In 2010, a Las Animas County landowner found approximately 500 gallons of grayish brown murky water in his cistern that he believes is linked to nearby hydraulic fracturing. This family has extensive water testing documentation going back many years, verifying that their water was always clean and clear until the nearby fracking took place.
The newspaper ad states it is "brought to you as a public service," which makes it sound like a “public service announcement,” but this is misleading. While the Colorado Independent Ethics Commission decided that it is okay for elected officials to use their personal credibility and the position of their office to better educate the public on issues relating to their government position, in its decision, the Ethics Commissions used examples of public service announcements that discuss the importance of voting, filling out the census form, retrieving unclaimed property, and discouraging the illegal use of alcohol.
None of those examples promote one industry or mislead the public with a false sense of security about considerable and well-documented public health and environmental threats.
What's needed in Colorado and across the nation are strong rules to protect drinking water sources, clean air, healthy communities,and wildlands from the threats of oil and gas development at all stages of the extraction process. Ads that ignore, and appear to try to hide, very real risks are not only a disservice to the public, but will only prolong the public's distrust of the oil and gas industry and underscore the justifiable demands of communities to keep the industry out of their backyards and schoolyards. Instead of ads that appear to promote the oil and gas industry without acknowledging and addressing the risks, we hope Governor Hickenlooper will instead focus his energy on new and stronger protections for Colorado's clean water, clean air, and quality of life.