Have you ever wondered why, when they discover a new oil or gas field, they call it a “play”? Could it be that oil and gas corporations are playing with your family’s health, playing with your home’s value and playing with our state’s economic future?
The new Niobrara energy play in shale oil and shale gas along the Front Range of Colorado—with 10,000 new leases and counting—brings with it enormous problems, risks and health concerns. Let’s look at some facts.
• Water: Thousands of spills, and releases of drilling and fracking chemicals, have occurred in drilled and fracked areas of the state, many affecting groundwater and some affecting surface water. Aquifer contamination has occurred. Wells have been poisoned. Water supplies are being stretched even thinner as rivers and farms are poised to be drained for drilling and fracking.
• Air: Two scientific studies—one by the University of Colorado and another by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration—have found serious problems with air quality in heavily drilled and fracked areas of the state. Headaches, nosebleeds, dizziness and asthma attacks are the most common complaints as methane, ozone and other cancer-causing chemicals blow into nearby homes and communities.
• Property values: Residents across the state who have wells and drilling permits within a few hundred feet of their homes report difficulties selling their homes, negative impacts on their property values, difficulties buying homeowners’ insurance and more heavily scrutinized mortgages and home equity loans.
• Wildlife: All across the state in drilled and fracked areas, wildlife—including elk, mule deer, antelope and sage grouse—have been affected. Drilling and fracking may cause the greater sage grouse to be listed as an endangered species, and are increasingly affecting Colorado’s hunting and recreational economy.
Some elected officials—including Reps. Diana DeGette (D-CO), and Jared Polis (D-CO), and several state legislators—recently tried to address these negative impacts by introducing bills to protect the public’s health, property and the environment from drilling and fracking. But so far, those bills have gotten nowhere. Why? A look at a recent vote in the U.S. Senate tells the whole story.
A few weeks ago, the U.S. Senate tried to cut billions of dollars in government subsidies given to Big Oil corporations, but that effort failed by a few votes. Why? It turns out that the very same U.S. senators who voted to support those subsidies had taken more than $16 million in campaign contributions from Big Oil companies in the last 13 years.
This buying and selling of elected officials and our democracy occurs in state government too. A few years ago, former Gov. Bill Ritter tried to cut state subsidies given to oil and gas corporations, and use the money to fund higher education, address the negative impacts of drilling and increase investments in clean energy.
What happened? Instantly, oil and gas corporations spent $10 million on TV ads to kill the effort. In addition, our current governor’s campaign has been a big recipient of oil and gas cash, as have those of many state legislators, and current and former candidates and Congress members.
Poisoned water, polluted air, decreasing home values, decreasing hunting and recreational opportunities, and increasingly toxic landscapes. Did I leave out something?
Oh yeah—$4/gallon gas prices charged at the pump by Big Oil corporations that made profits of more than $130 billion last year alone.
How much worse can it get? Consider this: After meeting with Anadarko Oil Corp. officials, a commissioner from Weld County (which has more wells than any U.S. county) told the Greeley Tribune, “We are the new Saudi Arabia.”
Let’s get real.
Do we need oil and gas until we can shift to a clean-energy economy? Yes. Should we shift to that clean-energy economy as soon as possible? Yes. In the meantime, do we need much stronger protections from the impacts of drilling and fracking? Yes, absolutely.
But do we also need to hear sanctimonious, oil money-soaked politicians ranting about getting the government off of Big Oil’s back? No.
Tell these politicians to take their dirty oil money and go play somewhere else.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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