A growing number of elected officials on the Western Slope are pushing for regulations on oil and gas pollution to reflect stricter rules currently in place on the Front Range.
“Why would we have lax standards on one side of the state and more stringent standards on the other?” said Pitkin County Commissioner Greg Poschman. “We need to get on the same page.”
In 2014, the state of Colorado adopted methane emission standards, seen as a national model for regulating the escape of the greenhouse gas from natural-gas and oil extraction operations. However, the rules did not address the issue of hydrocarbons, an oil and gas byproduct that can increase ozone levels and affect human health.
Three years later, though, rules regulating hydrocarbons were implemented for nine Front Range counties from the Denver metro area to the northern part of the state around Fort Collins.
Peter Butler, chairman of the state’s Air Quality Control Commission, said rules were selected for the Front Range because those communities fall below ozone standards set by the federal government, likely driven by a larger population and more industry operations, especially oil and gas.
“That’s why rules are much tighter there than the rest of the state,” Butler said.
Even vehicles older than seven years are required to pass periodic emissions tests as part of the new rules.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone standard is 70 parts per billion.
If a community has more days over 70 parts per billion than set by the standard, it is considered a “nonattainment” area and the state must draft an action plan to get into compliance, a measure laid out in the Clean Air Act.
The EPA says health risks associated with unsafe ozone levels include difficulty breathing, aggravation of lung diseases such as asthma and increased risk of lung infection, among other risks. Children, older adults and people with asthma are particularly susceptible.
And, the release of hydrocarbons contributes to rising global temperatures.
Despite the Front Range’s rules, air quality in Denver and to the north worsened last year, likely because of an increasing number of people and cars, pollution from outside the state, warmer temperatures and more wildfires. As a result, the region missed an extended deadline to meet federal health standards.
Recently, there’s been a push for hydrocarbon standards to be applied statewide.
The state’s Air Quality Control Commission set up a task force last year to accomplish this goal.
“In a year from now, we’re expecting them to come forward with some proposal, either regulatory or non-regulatory, to reduce emissions,” Butler said.
The news is welcome to some elected officials on the Western Slope who say air pollution has no boundaries, making it a statewide – even nationwide – problem.
Last week, a collection of 27 Western Slope elected officials through Western Leaders Network sent a letter to the state’s task force calling for strengthened regulations. The group of elected officials includes three Durango city councilors, two La Plata Electric Association board members and La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt.
Poschman, for instance, said Pitkin County doesn’t have much of an extraction industry, but that doesn’t mean pollution regulations should be limited.
“It’s definitely a statewide issue,” he said. “We all breathe the same air.”
Poschman said some parts of the state outside the Front Range are experiencing intense population growth, which means emissions could be more of an issue down the line.
“We need to address this before it becomes a problem,” he said.
La Plata County isn’t considered a “nonattainment” area, but it’s coming close, Butler said.
Lachelt, who is also executive director of Western Leaders Network, said Southwest Colorado is under a 2,400-square-mile “methane cloud” that expands into New Mexico and is largely attributed to natural gas production in the San Juan Basin.
“We deserve the same protections as the Front Range,” Lachelt said.
The task force, called the State Hydrocarbon Emissions Reduction Task Force, includes members of the oil and gas industry, members of the mining industry, environmentalists and recreationists, to name a few, Butler said.
“Basically, they’re talking a lot and having a lot of meetings,” he said.
Calls to Greg Kaufman, director of the state’s Air Pollution Control Division, were not returned for this story.
“We’re working with the stakeholders as best we can, and hopefully come up with a result good for industry and the public,” said Eric Carlson, executive director for Colorado Oil and Gas Association’s West Slope.
Christi Zeller, director of the Energy Council, said in an email, “The current process is working well.”
“We believe that the meeting to be held here in April will be important so that we can discuss the immense differences in production, product and equipment here in southwestern Colorado and once again remind those elected officials and state officials of the unique challenges and opportunities in the San Juan Basin,” Zeller said.
John Messner, a Gunnison County commissioner, said maintaining the viability of those industries is important. But it’s just as important, he said, to have common sense rules that protect air and water, as well as Colorado’s other major economic driver: recreation and tourism.
“You can’t just develop regulations … on the Front Range and expect that to solve the problem statewide,” he said. “Air isn’t stagnant.”