On Dec. 17, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission will decide whether to adopt important updates to rules designed to reduce methane and ozone emissions from oil and gas operations throughout Colorado. This is an important moment for those of us living on the West Slope, where air pollution protections are not as strong as they are on the Front Range.
Fortunately, the state is proposing a stronger set of statewide rules that will go a long way in protecting the health of all Coloradans and our climate for those on both sides of the continental divide. Statewide standards are needed because the impacts of oil and gas development on air quality are the same throughout the state. Drilling, storage, disposal and transport of oil and gas releases the same exact pollutants, no matter where that activity is located.
You can make a difference in this process on Dec. 10 in Rifle, where the commission will take public comment. It is important that people who rely on our healthy environment for recreation or their livelihood show up and make their voices heard, whether ranchers or farmers, river guides, fishers and hunters, ski and snowboard industry employees, shop owners or backcountry enthusiasts of all stripes.
Colorado has a double standard when it comes to air quality and climate protections from oil and gas development. The rules on the West Slope are less stringent than in the Denver metro area and northern Front Range, where there are dangerously high ozone levels.
Ozone pollution is a serious problem that can trigger asthma attacks, worsen other respiratory diseases such as emphysema. Ozone is particularly dangerous for young children and older people.
First some history. Colorado in 2014 adopted the nation's first-ever statewide rules to cut both methane and ozone pollution from the oil and gas industry. While these rules went a long way to lower the number of leaks from wells and storage tanks, counties along the Front Range still struggle to meet federal ozone standards.
In 2017, the state adopted additional controls for the ozone nonattainment area, but those standards were not applied to the West Slope even though there is significant energy production out here.
Fast forward to today, and we see that oil and gas production has continued to increase on the Front Range even as these new rules have been implemented. The energy industry has been operating successfully under the tighter regulations which proves they are "technologically feasible and economically reasonable," as required by state law. It's clear that we can both protect our air and encourage a more responsible approach to energy development.
That's why it is high time to end the regional disparity and have one strong set of statewide rules. For two years in a row, the American Lung Association gave La Plata County an F grade for its ozone levels. And now, Garfield's air quality has been backsliding to a "D" while Mesa County received a "C." It makes no sense to wait for air quality problems to get worse when cost-effective solutions are at hand.
The oil and gas industry is also a leading contributor of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas responsible for about a quarter of the climate change we are experiencing today. In 2014 NASA first discovered a 2,400-square-mile methane cloud hovering over the San Juan Basin in southwestern Colorado. Subsequent studies found that the oil and gas industry is the primary contributor to observed sources of methane emissions that are creating this "methane hotspot."
The effects of climate change accelerated by methane emissions are already having a big economic impact around the West Slope. Longer, more intense wildfire seasons threaten our health and homes and summer recreation business, while shorter, less predictable winters affect our ski and winter recreation industry. These climate-related challenges are not some future threat that climatologists are predicting. They are here now.
All wells, regardless of their geographic location, produce at least some hydrocarbon liquids (crude oil and condensate), process water, and methane, which must be separated so that the liquids can be transported to a refinery and sold. The equipment used for separating these components, storing the hydrocarbon liquids and produced water, and disposal of the gas is the same throughout Colorado.
Statewide application of methane and air quality protections must be applied statewide. As the commission considers new regulations to address emissions, it's important that we make it clear that western Colorado deserves strong protections, just like our neighbors on the Front Range. All Coloradans deserve strong clean air protections, no matter where they live.
Troy Redding is a community organizer for the Western Colorado Alliance.