Healthy balance on air rules will protect West Slope industries

By Claudette Konola

The people of Mesa County have been asked to fight against the rules proposed by Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission, which are designed to control emissions of methane and other chemicals into our air.

The point most frequently made by opponents is that the rules are in response to deteriorating air quality along the Front Range, and that our local oil and gas producers should not be saddled with requirements to manage cleaner operations.

What isn’t being said by most opponents is that the proposed rules were written with participation from Colorado’s largest oil and gas producers, the Environmental Defense Fund and the governor’s staff. According to a Denver Post article announcing the proposed rules, Gov. John Hickenlooper “credited executives from Anadarko, Encana and Noble Energy — the state’s largest producers — for compromising and helping minimize environmental harm from drilling before the cost implications are fully known. ‘They understand it is a shared responsibility,’ he said, ‘and they have really stepped up.’”

Nationally, the EPA has been given the authority to determine if the air we breathe is safe. The authorizing legislation was first passed in 1970, and most recently amended in 1990. Since rulemaking in 2008, the act requires that the air we breathe contain no more than 75 parts per billion of ground-level ozone. Failure to meet that standard over a period of time triggers enforcement action by the EPA. The EPA has proposed changing that standard to 60 ppb, in order to further protect the health and well-being of children and other at-risk populations.

Grand Junction is skating on the edge of being out of compliance of the 75 ppb requirement, and would be out of attainment at the 60 ppb level. Rifle has already reached nonattainment.

One of the unfortunate things is that Grand Junction measures air quality at a station that is frequently out of service, so we don’t really know how often we are out of attainment. During winter months, especially when there are inversions, the trend, based on what has been measured, is toward more and more days of nonattainment.

So, we have a choice: Voluntarily do something to curb the levels of ground-level ozone now or wait until the EPA forces a solution upon us.

Ground-level ozone is formed when pollutants from automobiles, power plants, chemical plants and, yes, the oil and gas industry react with sunlight. Jeff Kuhr, director of the Mesa County Health Department, said that “lawn mowers, painting operations and filling up a gas tank also contribute VOCs.” VOCs can create ground-level ozone.

It is important to stress that automobile exhaust is a huge contributor to ground-level ozone. We can’t blame all of this problem on the oil and gas industry, although it is a contributor, both locally and especially on the Front Range.

The EPA website has this to say: “Breathing air containing ozone can reduce lung function and increase respiratory symptoms, thereby aggravating asthma or other respiratory conditions. Ozone exposure also has been associated with increased susceptibility to respiratory infections, medication use by asthmatics, doctor visits, and emergency department visits and hospital admissions for individuals with respiratory disease. Ozone exposure may contribute to premature death, especially in people with heart and lung disease. High ozone levels can also harm sensitive vegetation and forested ecosystems.”

Dismissing the health risks for a moment, high ozone levels can harm vegetation and forests. We have a growing wine industry. Agri-tourism is on the rise. We enjoy the money out-of-state visitors leave behind when hunting, fishing and mountain biking in western Colorado. All of those industries provide jobs that are dependent on healthy plants. If crop yields decrease because of ground-level ozone, wineries and peach orchards will see lower revenues and be less desirable to the agri-tourist. If trees don’t thrive, neither will the wildlife that depends on that habitat, negatively impacting the hunting experience and the revenues of outfitters and other industries supporting out-of-state hunters.

Do people believe we can’t afford to control ground-level ozone because an industry providing about 3 percent of our local jobs is more important than the industries employing the rest of us? (Mining is credited with 6 percent of the jobs in Mesa County by Grand Junction Economic Partnership, and oil and gas jobs are included in that figure.)

Air is air. Polluted air is polluted air. Rather than concentrating only on a small segment of the oil and gas industry, our local focus needs to seek a balance that allows all industries, people and wildlife to thrive. We can’t afford to continue sacrificing the industries that employ most of us for an industry that employs a small percentage of us. We need the extractive industries, but we also need them to be good citizens.

Claudette Konola is a retired banker and economic-development fund administrator. She is a Democrat running for the District 7 state Senate seat.


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