Public gets its say on proposed oil, gas air rules

Mesa County resident JoAnn Moon described for a state panel Wednesday how she coughs, gets dizzy and suffers burning in her eyes, nose and throat due to smog she attributes to woodstoves, malfunctioning cars and oil and gas development.

“Air is our most basic, most fundamental need. Clean air must not be subject to the whims of agencies, officials, politicians or uninformed bureaucrats,” she said during day-long public testimony before the Air Quality Control Commission as it began considering new air-pollution limits on oil and gas operations.

But Mike Foster of Grand Junction questioned the degree to which local drilling can be held to blame for Mesa County’s air problems, noting that it’s currently limited to about 10 rigs in Garfield and Rio Blanco counties.

“It doesn’t seem that natural gas drilling is the only industry in western Colorado and it’s hard for me to understand why 10 drilling rigs could be the prime contributor to ozone and other pollutants in Mesa County,” he said.

Problems such as high Mesa County pollution during winter temperature inversions were debated before the state commission Wednesday as it considers in part the degree to which tougher rules should be applied statewide, as opposed to just on the Front Range, which is in what’s called “nonattainment” of federal ozone standards.

“These proposed rules would cost too much in our rural part of the state,” Christi Zeller, executive director of the La Plata County Energy Council, told the commission.

She said the Air Pollution Control Division “has not justified the rules as written.”

Said Christy Belton of Citizens Supporting Property Rights, a Routt County group, “I think the intentions of the rules are good. However, I’m concerned about the way that it is to be implemented as a blanket regulation that would affect the entire state.”

“… I believe now is not the time to be adding more costs and more red tape when the problem is not with one industry.”

But others said the entire state is need of strong protections from oil and gas development.

“The air is not fine in Garfield County right now. Hazy skies are routine. We can see brown clouds hanging in the valley,” said Doug Saxton, a Battlement Mesa resident.

He said his wife has suffered from shortness of breath and other symptoms from nearby drilling.

“We are no less threatened that if we were in a (ozone) nonattainment zone,” he said.

Skip Spensley, a board member of the Regional Air Quality Council in the Denver metro area, said there’s evidence that some ozone precursors are coming from outside the Denver area. While it’s not clear where it’s coming from, it makes sense to take a precautionary approach targeting such precursors on a statewide basis, he said.

Noting the area’s difficulties already meeting the current Environmental Protection Agency ozone standard, he said that “if the EPA lowers it, it is going to be more of a challenge.”

The Air Quality Control Commission is scheduled to continue its hearing on the proposed new rules throughout this week, as it shifts to taking testimony from industry, governments, citizen groups and other parties to the rulemaking. It expects to decide on the proposal sometime this weekend.

Under the proposal, Colorado would specifically target emissions of methane, making it the first state to do so for oil and gas development. Methane is considered a potent greenhouse gas.

State Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, told the commission he supports even stronger rules. He cited the concern about the industry’s impact on residents, and said that having once worked as a firefighter, he knows firefighters believe climate change is occurring.

“I think we underestimate what we are doing to our planet and how that affects people,” he said.

But some state lawmakers worried Wednesday about the potential impacts of tighter rules on area economies. Among them were Rep. Ray Scott and Sen. Steve King, both Mesa County Republicans.
“There’s two sides of the state,” Scott said. “One side is in economic crisis right now. … So please take that into consideration when you consider the rules.”

Bonnie Petersen, executive director of Club 20, told the commission costly new rules could affect the many small local energy companies that already are “just barely getting by.”

Grand Junction City Council member Bennett Boeschenstein reiterated his support for the proposed rules Wednesday.

“Our air quality is too fundamental in our daily lives to take a chance,” he said.

Aspen Skiing Co. executive Auden Schendler said his company and Colorado Ski Country USA support the regulations as proposed “because we believe there are enormous economic benefits to protecting air quality and helping with our recreational economy.” In addition, he said, targeting methane leakage will meaningfully impact climate change because other states can be expected to follow Colorado’s lead in doing so.

Addressing methane leakage “can allow natural gas to be a meaningful transition fuel from coal,” he said.


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