Six months ago, a small group of local activists had a big impact on the debate over oil and gas development in Erie, Colo. The group, called Erie Rising, claimed the town had dangerously poor air quality – worse than Houston and Los Angeles – and blamed it all on the energy industry. It was a shocking revelation.
The Erie Board of Trustees almost immediately called for a moratorium on local permitting for new oil and gas wells, and Erie Rising became an overnight sensation with national environmental activist groups
and Hollywood actors like Mark Ruffalo.
There was just one problem: those claims weren’t true. In the weeks that followed, Erie town officials commissioned two expert air quality studies, and both found there was no danger. Not only that, environmental data from the Obama administration showed the Denver metropolitan area has much better air quality than Houston, Los Angeles and about 30 other major U.S. cities. In other words, Erie Rising’s ringleaders had scared their neighbors and elected officials without cause.
Since then, Erie town officials and oil and gas developers have spent months working through their differences, choosing to negotiate an agreement rather than argue over the legality of the moratorium. Today, there’s a compromise which will come before the board on Aug. 28. It includes legally enforceable commitments from oil and gas companies to adopt tougher emission controls than are required by Colorado’s nation-leading environmental regulations.
It’s a compromise supported by Erie Town Administrator A.J. Krieger, who told the board during an Aug. 14 meeting that oil and gas companies have negotiated in “good faith” and town officials “have done everything that we can do.”
But sadly, at the same board meeting, representatives from Erie Rising attacked the compromise. Even worse, they claimed once again that Erie’s air is dangerously polluted, without providing a shred of documentary evidence or data to back up their allegations.
So why should Erie’s citizens and elected officials believe them this time around? According to Erie Rising, it’s because they have brought in San Francisco-based Global Community Monitor to collect their own air samples and produce their own emissions data, using a so-called “bucket brigade.” Those samples, collected in buckets lined with plastic bags, are supposed to provide the Board of Trustees with credible information about the air quality in Erie, especially near the town’s schools.
As usual, Erie Rising isn’t being straight with the board or the citizens of their town. GCM is not an independent, objective or credible source. It’s an anti-industry activist group that specializes in producing bad test results that advance political, not scientific, goals.
“The Bucket Brigade is not a scientific experiment,” GCM executive director Denny Larson wrote in a 2006 handbook for environmental activists. “Our focus is on organizing. We use science, but only in the service of organizing.”
In fact, GCM was rebuked just last year for making alarmist air quality claims in another Colorado town. Based on a single “bucket” sample lasting less than three minutes, GCM claimed in July 2011 that students at Sunnyside Elementary School in Durango were being exposed to unsafe levels of cancer-causing chemicals.
Only two months earlier, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reached the opposite conclusion – Sunnyside’s students are safe – as part of a national air-quality research project involving months of testing at 63 schools in 22 states. When the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment examined GCM’s results, it found a long list of “serious technical deficiencies,” including the possibility that the chemicals detected actually came from the plastic bags used to collect the air samples.
But even so, once the news media picked up GCM’s claims about Sunnyside Elementary, frightened parents started talking about pulling their children out of school. That spurred Durango School District 9-R to pay for its own follow-up study, which also debunked GCM’s findings and confirmed EPA’s original conclusion; again, that Sunnyside’s students were and are safe.
GCM’s leaders never apologized for the needless fear and anxiety they caused the parents, children and teachers of Sunnyside Elementary, and they didn’t display a hint of embarrassment after their work was discredited by local, state and federal officials. Instead, they just went quiet for a while and showed up in Erie last month, ready to do the same thing all over again.
Whatever decision the Board of Trustees makes on Aug. 28, it should be based on the facts. Just don’t expect those facts to come from Erie Rising, GCM or the other national activist groups they’ve flown into town.
Courtney Loper is a Denver-based field director for Energy In Depth, a research, education and public outreach campaign of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.