Different air, different areas require different state rules
By John Justman
On Friday, several western Colorado counties — Mesa, Garfield, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Montezuma — joined voices as coalition partners in Denver, offering the state Air Quality Control Commission coordinated repudiation of further restrictive oil and gas regulatory considerations.
At issue are proposed statewide rule changes that could further discourage already stressed oil and gas activity in our counties. The Daily Sentinel’s Dennis Webb reported Jan. 9 that, as the state prepares to adopt new rules addressing air quality concerns, several Western Slope and Front Range citizen groups, including Western Colorado Congress, the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and Citizens for Clean Air, have lobbied the Air Quality Control Commission to further tighten air pollution standards.
Mesa County, along with our partners in the coalition, contend that the commission should not paint the state’s oil and gas operations with one broad stroke, smothering the industry on the Western Slope with more needless regulation. Rather, the commission should take into consideration historical statewide rulemaking, recognizing the difference between the airsheds of attainment, and airsheds of non-attainment, as well as factors established through the Clean Air Act related to determining the need to expand ozone non-attainment boundaries.
Without getting too technical, when talking about air quality standards, two different designations are considered. These standards are “attainment” and “non-attainment.” Basically, this means that a population area that has fine particles, carbon monoxide and ozone levels over the limit has “not attained” the air quality levels that the EPA and other regulatory bodies require. However, other population areas might have air quality standards well within acceptable levels and thus have “attained” a National Ambient Air Quality Standard.
The new regulations being considered by the commission and lobbied for by activist groups lump western Colorado together with our neighbors to the east. The Western Slope should not be guilty by association. One size does not fit all, and western Colorado counties generally are not plagued by the ozone and pollution problems facing the Front Range.
The proposed statewide regulations do not take into account any true or proven economic detriments. The rules do not support the science behind where ozone is emitted. It is inequitable and inconsistent with the history of Colorado to disregard the distinction between non-attainment (Front Range) and areas of attainment (western Colorado) and lump together our areas. In fact, it appears that these proposed rules were drafted without consideration of the Clean Air Act’s 11 factors for determining the need to expand ozone non-attainment boundaries.
Perhaps the reason for the degradation in Front Range air quality stems from the five-year boom in oil and gas activity there. We bet, however, that even without increased extraction activity, the Front Range would still be in non-attainment status.
However, while many Western Slope exploration and production activities have scaled back operations as natural gas prices have stalled, oil and gas wells are popping up along the Front Range like pimples or a teenager.
Current oil and gas work in the Piceance Basin has not created ozone problems in the communities closest to where the drilling is occurring. The air problems in Denver are not caused by the wind blowing our air into their brown cloud. However, some are suggesting that Western Slope exploration and production is, or could be, contributing to the problems the Front Range is seeing with air quality.
Obviously, there is a balance to be struck between economic development and air quality. Activists and regulators raise valid arguments pointed to the correlation between oil and gas production and nearby unhealthy ozone levels.
The director of the Mesa County Health Department, Jeff Kuhr, says the oil and gas industry is just one of many sources of volatile organic compounds. For instance, lawn mowers, painting operations and filling up a gas tank also contribute VOCs.
In the five years that the Mesa County Health Department has operated an ozone monitor, there has been no evidence of increasing annual levels of ozone. Dr. Kuhr sees our air quality challenges being more associated with significant population growth on the Western Slope. These challenges will not be solved by singling out a specific industry, but rather through a comprehensive examination of all sources of air pollution.
The suggested blanket rules are reckless, not taking into account the crippling cost of compliance, and could further discourage economic development and growth in Western Colorado. After all the recently documented actions that the Front Range has implemented to the peril of western Colorado communities, it is high time our voice is heard, our citizens stand united and we create a case that cannot be ignored or refuted by those that do not care and do not share in our way of life.
Do not lump western Colorado in with the Front Range. It is different. We are different, our airsheds are different and we demand our autonomy.
John Justman is a Mesa County commissioner.