New air quality rules are necessary 
to protect Grand Valley, West Slope

By Karen Sjoberg and Charles Kerr

Coloradans have an extraordinary opportunity to improve air quality in Colorado. In February, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission will consider new air pollution control measures for the oil and gas industry that, if adopted, will dramatically improve air quality statewide.

These protections were drafted by the state Health Department after receiving input from people here and across the state and are strongly supported by a broad spectrum of Colorado, including Anadarko Petroleum, Encana USA, Noble Energy, Gov. John Hickenlooper, environmental groups and many local governments.

The regulations will require the use of existing technologies to reduce oil and gas leaks into the air we breathe, and they require the industry to conduct inspections and to repair any leaks that are discovered.

Citizens for Clean Air supports the new rules and urges area citizens and elected officials to back this effort to safeguard our air quality.

Formed a year ago, Citizens for Clean Air is a Grand Valley organization made up of a growing group of volunteers working cooperatively with governments, businesses, nonprofits and concerned citizens committed to addressing our deteriorating air quality. Our diverse membership proves that a desire for clean air in the Grand Valley is not a partisan issue.

Citizens for Clean Air is surprised and disappointed that some of our local elected officials have come out in opposition to the draft rules. Even though we have major air pollution problems here, they believe the rules should only apply to the Front Range.

We need these regulations as much as the Front Range. The Grand Junction airshed is already compromised. With new oil and gas development on the horizon, we need these rules to prevent further deterioration.

Air pollution is a serious problem. The oil and gas industry is the largest source of volatile organic compounds in Colorado.  The Health Department estimates that the oil and gas industry is responsible for 54 percent of the VOCs produced by humans statewide.

VOCs are an ingredient in ground-level ozone. Ground-level ozone is harmful to people, plants (including our vineyards and orchards) and animals. In people, ozone can cause breathing problems — especially in the elderly, children, those with heart problems and people who have compromised lung function. Adverse health impacts on humans have been recorded at ozone levels less than 60 parts per billion, a level we routinely exceed.

In agriculture, high levels of ozone reduce yields and reduce the quality of the harvest. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports “Ground-level ozone causes more damage to plants than all other air pollutants combined.” Measurable economic damage to plants begins at ozone concentration levels of 40 ppb.

We all know we have an air quality problem in the Grand Valley. We can see it easily during inversions. The numbers back up what our eyes tell us. Ozone levels in Palisade are in the 60 to 70 ppb range with spikes as high as 90 ppb. The three-year average for ground level ozone in Palisade is 67 ppb. The federal standard is currently at 75 ppb, but this is widely recognized as too high for human health. For most countries, standard ozone levels are well below this (e.g. 61 ppb in the European Union; 65 ppb in Canada).

Anyone who has spent a winter in the Grand Valley knows what our inversions can do to our air quality. They may last for months, blot out our views of the Colorado National Monument and the Grand Mesa, and send some of our neighbors to the emergency room.

There are 1,060 active oil and gas wells in Mesa County now, but development of oil and gas is expected to increase in coming years (Fram Operating, LLC has submitted a development plan to the BLM for the construction of up to 108 new wells south of Palisade). The Western Slope desperately needs the tighter protections this rule provides, and it needs these protections to be in place when new drilling occurs.

The CCA supports the draft rule. At the same time, we believe the rule needs to get stronger, not weaker, by adding protections for residences, schools and other public buildings in close proximity to oil and gas operations. For example, the current draft would allow the industry to wait five to 15 days to repair a leak. We contend that if a major leak is discovered near a home or school it should be repaired within hours, not days.

Leaders in the oil and gas industry have said that complying with these protections is cost-effective. Indeed, pollutants like methane will be captured and sold. They are valuable products.

Industry leaders know something has to be done to protect human health. As Hickenlooper told The Daily Sentinel earlier this month, “The people that operate 60 or 70 percent of the oil and gas wells in Colorado, they want regulation. They don’t want the irresponsible operators to tarnish their reputations.”

We agree with the responsible oil and gas operators. We can have oil and gas development, good jobs and cleaner air. We are hopeful that residents, the agricultural community and businesses throughout western Colorado will support these common-sense protections.

Karen Sjoberg, chairwoman of Citizens for Clean Air. Charles Kerr is a long-standing member of the Mesa County Air Quality Planning Committee and a member of CCA.


COMMENTS

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Based on the companion guest editorial, it seems that even our County Commissioner, who is a farmer, is throwing agriculture under the bus in favor of oil and gas. Breathing is a pretty important human function, but air quality also impacts crop yields. Both deserve more attention from our elected officials.

Don’t let the environmentalists fool you into believing this is something new and hasn’t been done and therefore needs a regulation to require it.

The oil and gas developers have already been doing this closed system recovery process for years. The process of flow-back and flow testing uses an inline separator to trap gas released from the well while cleaning out the excess sand from a frac operation. Very little gas escapes to the atmosphere and gas is only vented briefly when the returning high velocity sand from a frac could potentially cut through the piping from the well or plug up separator. If a leak develops, The well is immediately shut in by the flowback operators until repairs are made.

Also, drilling rigs have separators on their drilling mud return lines to separate and trap the gas from the drilling mud. This USED TO be flared off to prevent the possibility of an explosion or vented to atmosphere, but improvements have been made in these areas too.

Energy companies do take it upon themselves to contain their petroleum emissions from a well. After all, it’s product and money lost if it gets away.

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