The bellwether for air quality in the Four Corners has always been the Shiprock spire in New Mexico.
Is it visible, or shrouded in smog?
Tougher air quality rules recently passed for the oil-and-gas industry in Colorado are expected to clean the air and improve the view from southwest Colorado.
Stricter emission controls for New Mexico power plants will also help clear the haze that creeps into Colorado, obscuring views of Shiprock and the Chuska and Lukachukai mountain ranges in Arizona.
On Feb. 23, after five days of mind-numbing, technical testimony from industry experts, government agencies and environmental groups - all aired live on YouTube - the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission approved new emission rules for the oil and gas industry.
The changes, including for local CO2 producer Kinder Morgan, require that pollution leaks be found and repaired more immediately, explained Will Allison, air pollution control director for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Operators will be required to enact comprehensive leak-detection programs on facilities that include more monitoring, repair and reporting.
"The new rule generally calls for using infrared detection to see emissions that are invisible to the naked eye," Allison said. "Gases are escaping before making it to the pipeline or to emission controls."
Uncontrolled venting gases contribute to ozone pollution, a human health hazard and key ingredient in smog.
Ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides from vehicles, power plants, and well-heads combine with volatile organic compounds from gases and solvents in the presence of sunlight.
Storage tank upgrades
New rules specifically target oil and gas storage tanks, requiring redesigns to prevent so-called "flash emissions" from differences in pressure when tanks are filled or emptied.
"Storage-tanks leaks are one of the biggest sources of volatile organic compounds that contribute to ozone, and methane that contributes to climate change," Allison said. "Retrofitting with pressure controls is one solution."
According to the new rules, leaks will be required to be repaired in five days once discovered.
Beginning in 2015, companies will be required to keep records of the leak detection repair programs, and file annual report with the CDPHE. The records will be made public.
"It's a commonsense approach that has an economic benefit as well as for air quality. Some of what is escaping it the actual product they are making money on," Allison said.
As a result of the new rules, regulators expect to eliminate 92,000 tons of volatile organic compounds, and 60,000-90,000 tons of methane from the atmosphere each year.
"There have been high ozone levels in rural areas in the Rocky Mountain West where there is oil and gas development," Allison said. "We want to get ahead of curve and have the best regulations possible in place to address existing production but also future growth."
Conservation groups applauded the new rules.
"The Commission has taken an important step to protect Coloradans from the smog generated by oil and gas development," said Michael Freeman, an attorney for Earthjustice. "While more will be needed to meet federal air quality standards, we're pleased that Colorado is taking a big bite out of the problem."
Montezuma, Dolores, and La Plata counties are rural areas near oil-and-gas fields, which are located mostly in southern La Plata County and northern New Mexico.
Air monitoring stations scattered throughout the Four Corners, including in Cortez, show the region to be within compliance of federal and state air quality standards.
However, EPA air quality reports for Southwest Colorado reveal an overall upward trend of ground-level ozone, a main contributor of smog.
The levels have not exceeded the EPA allowable maximum of .075 parts per million (ppm).
But air monitors in Cortez, Mesa Verde National Park, and the Southern Ute Tribe show an overall increase in ozone between 2008 and November 2013, going from .064 ppm to nearly .070 ppm.
According to a December 2013 air quality report for Mesa Verde National Park, "ozone conditions . . . are not meeting recommended benchmark conditions, and are a moderate concern."
The report cites an ozone level of .067 ppm between 2008-2012.
Coal-fired power plants and heavy oil-and-gas activity in Northern New Mexico have impacted Mesa Verde National Park air quality.
Between 2006 and 2008, the park saw a jump in ozone levels to near the maximum allowable level of .075 ppm. Nearby oil-and-gas production is partly to blame, according to the December report.
"Primary threats to visual resources come from development outside the park and pollutants that degrade visibility," the report states. "Continued development of oil and gas could degrade the scenic views from certain viewpoints within Mesa Verde National Park."
The air above nearby forests is impacted as well. An air monitor near the Weminuche Wilderness Area spiked to .074 ppm, in 2010, just below the allowable level.
New Mexico's efforts
In January, operators of the coal-fired Four Corners Power Plant near Farmington, NM, shut down three of the most polluting generating units and upgrading two others with improved pollution controls.
According to Navajo regulators, the plan will reduce pollutants by 60,000 tons per year. Emissions for mercury will be reduced by 61 percent, particulates by 43 percent, nitrogen oxides by 36 percent, carbon dioxide by 30 percent and sulfur dioxide by 24 percent.
The upgrades are a result of stricter rules under the Clean Air Act, regulating regional haze.
The nearby San Juan Generating Station, also a coal-fired electric power plant, plans to improve emissions as well, said Rita Bates, an air quality specialist with the New Mexico Environment Department.
"We have adopted a regional haze Best Available Retrofit Technology determination for the San Juan Generating Station that, if approved by EPA, will result in a shutdown of two of the four units at that facility in 2017," Bates said.
In addition, EPA has new rules for reciprocating engines that were finalized in 2013 and the BLM has conditions of approval for engines at well sites that include requirements for controlling nitrogen oxides pollutants.
Collectively, the two-state effort is expected to clear the air, and thereby improve the view of Shiprock, said Allison of Colorado's health and environment department.
"Expect to see significant reduction in air pollution in the future," he said. "We're still going to see temperature inversions where pollution gets trapped by warmer air above leading to smoggy days, but we are certain these new rules will make big dent in the amount of overall air pollution."