On a Thursday evening in April last year, a bill died. House Bill 1275, the brainchild of Colorado State Rep. Joann Ginal (D-Fort Collins), asked and set out to answer a simple question. According to Gary Wockner, environmental writer and advocate for the Huffington Post, the bill questioned the health effects of fracking. It asked: “Are people living near oil and gas drilling and fracking getting sicker than people who don’t?”
The bill never made it out of committee in the Colorado State Legislature. But this year, Ginal is back, and she’s hoping that the second time will be the charm.
“Colorado has witnessed a remarkable boom in oil and gas exploration in the last decade, along with an increase in our population along the Front Range,” Ginal said. “Production is increasingly occurring near growing communities.”
That’s why she has introduced House Bill 1297.
The bill would address the “lack of research on population health effects [that] has led to broad public concern about the potential health consequences of hydraulic fracturing on the Front Range,” Ginal said.
It calls for a three-year, in-depth study detailing the health effects of drilling in the Front Range. The study would cover Arapahoe, Adams, Broomfield, Boulder, Weld, and Lamar counties and would cost an estimated $700,000.
The prospect of increased drilling along the Front Range has drawn local activists, the oil and gas industry, and politicians into a fiery debate that all sides agree has produced more raucous arguments than clarity on the issue. According to Ginal, this is due to the fact that there is a key piece of the fracking puzzle that’s been missing. Nobody really knows what the potential health impacts of drilling along the Front Range are, so she has made it her mission to fill in the blanks.
“It’s the right type of approach now, and something that can be done relatively quickly,” Wes Wilson, who spent 30 years as an Environmental Protection Agency analyst, said of the proposed study. “The industry’s claim that this has been around safely a long time just isn’t backed up by any kind of health study.”
The health studies that have been done, he said, point to real concerns about exposure to toxins emitted from wells.
However, the oil and gas industry in Colorado maintains that they follow stringent regulations, and that new technology has made fracking—which comprises a large majority of drilling activity in the state—safer and more effective than ever.
According to an educational message from Colorado’s Oil and Natural Gas Producers, “hydraulic fracturing is a proven, traditional technology that has been used for more than 60 years to safely enhance the production potential of oil and natural gas for more than one million wells in the United States.”
That’s why industry advocates like the Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce, which opposed Ginal’s bill last year, also oppose her bill this year. According to their official 2014 legislative position, “the Chamber opposes singling out key industries for this type of targeted, presumptive study.”
“This is not a bill that is designed to point fingers at an industry or say an industry is bad,” Kelly Gidden, a member of Citizens for a Healthy Fort Collins, said in defense. “This is simply a bill designed to look at the scientific data.”
So far, enough legislators have agreed with Gidden to keep the bill alive.
House Bill 1297 squeaked by the House Health, Insurance, and Environment Committee on a party line vote of six to five (a one-vote flip from last year’s bill). Last week it was introduced in the Senate. The next challenge for Ginal and the bill’s supporters will be pushing through the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“Health should not be a partisan issue,” Ginal said. “This is a scientific health analysis that citizens, both Democrat and Republican have been asking for. HB 1297 listens to these citizens on the Front Range.”