By Doug Flanders, Colorado Oil and Gas Association As a parent of two young children, my wife and I have tried to teach them integrity. They may be too young to grasp the concept, but they do understand – tell the truth, be nice to others, and love each other. For those of us in political and policy battles, we must deal with a large amount of information. Assessing how to best convey that information is critical. We must be careful not to try to fit broad general facts into a small hole. Put another way: We must guard against conveying correlation as causation. We see this play out when discussing air emissions in oil and gas development. Air quality is a complicated issue, but one that is a concern for us all. No one has the moral high ground when it comes to wanting our kids, grandparents, family, and friends to breathe clean air. However, we lose ground when we misuse facts as a means to gain our political and policy ends. Recently, the American Lung Association put out an interesting study entitled, State of the Air 2013. The study grades the levels of ozone pollution in Colorado counties. The study gave Arapahoe, Douglas, Jefferson, and Larimer counties F grades, while Boulder and Weld counties received D’s. On the other hand, Garfield and Mesa were the only two counties to receive A’s. While the study is interesting, problems arise when people with good intentions argue the D and F graded counties of Arapahoe, Larimer, Weld, and Boulder is solely due to oil and gas development. The argument goes like this: These counties have bad air, and the reason is oil and gas development. Period! No discussion on urban-suburban environments – or the proximity of roads or major highways where stop-and-go traffic is the norm. No, the argument simply reasons these counties’ ozone pollution is due to oil and gas. The problem with this causation argument is the correlation is flawed. First, as Dr. Urbina, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE), has stated, we live in a “soup of air.” There are many pollutants that cause bad air and to try to single out one culprit without a 1-to-1 correlation is difficult. Second, CDPHE has noted that mobile sources – our cars and trucks – are the largest source of ozone-causing pollutants. And third (and this is where the argument completely fails), if we agree the study’s grades are true (no reason to question that here) and correlate ozone pollution grades to oil and gas development – you should actually conclude the opposite. Arapahoe, Douglas, Jefferson, and Larimer counties all received F grades. However, since 2008, Arapahoe has had only 66 new well starts; Larimer 49 new starts, while Douglas and Jefferson have zero… none at all. Combined, these four counties have had 115 new starts, yet still received an F grade. Are you wondering whether 115 new starts is a lot? Keep reading. On the other hand, two counties that aced the study, Garfield and Mesa counties, have had 5,072 new well starts since 2008: Garfield County 4,783 and Mesa County 289. Thus, the two grade A counties have developed over 43 times more wells these last 5 years than the grade F counties. This scenario plays out the same when we compare CDPHE data. The average ozone levels over the same five-year period are highest (and above the safe ozone levels) in Larimer, Jefferson, Douglas, and Boulder counties. However, all four combined account for only 51 new wells starts. So, if we use the correlation-causation logic above, we should be able to deduce that oil and gas is responsible for the clean air in Garfield and Mesa counties and, if the F graded counties desire clean air, they should develop more oil and gas! Of course that logic is just as flawed as the other. We know there are over 6,000 new well starts in Weld County, which received a D grade – the same grade as Boulder County, supposedly one of the “most progressive and green counties,” with only three new wells. Why go through all this? Simplification and manipulation of facts and figures make us think our arguments are valid, but in reality it is a disservice to the public and those who are actually trying to fix the problem. The end is clean air. And the means should not be to misinform or manipulate data. For our facts to have integrity, we must recognize that air quality is complicated with many factors and simple solutions and sound bites will not lead to the results we all desire. COGA and the oil and gas industry understand industry operations impact air quality, and we are continually striving to improve and embrace technological advancements. For example, the new OOOO EPA regulations and existing COGCC regulations mandate green completions. Also, COGA supported the CDPHE’s request for additional infrared cameras in the budget this year, which are intended to assist in tightening up emissions at well sites and production facilities. We are witnessing how natural gas use is actually reducing US carbon dioxide emissions by 12% from the peak in 2007. This is twice the amount of reduction that the rest of the world has achieved. We live, work, and play in these neighborhoods. Let’s strive to do better – by the air we breathe and the words we say. To blame one segment of society for its ills, when they aren’t responsible, is disingenuous at best and lacks integrity at worst. As a wise woman has been known to espouse: To divide people into us-versus-them is easy, but when it comes to energy use – it’s all of us. Together. Doug Flanders is director of policy and external affairs at the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.
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