Colorado health officials mull tougher rule for oil and gas facilities to cut smog
October 21, 2017
Colorado officials under pressure to cut Front Range air pollution and meet federal health standards were weighing tougher rules Friday night for the oil and gas industry targeting smog.
Fossil fuels production has emerged as the main source of volatile organic compounds, VOCs, and nitrogen oxides pollution that bakes in sunlight to form ozone smog, which causes respiratory problems. Ozone levels in Weld, Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, Jefferson and Larimer counties exceed the 2008 federal limit of 75 parts per billion, let alone the current 70 ppb limit.
"Reducing VOCs is essential for meeting that 75 ppb standard. Any reductions we can get in a cost-effective manner are worthwhile," Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment air-quality planner Jeremy Neustifter said. "We have a limited slice of the emissions pie that we can go after."
State health officials have proposed requiring oil and gas companies to conduct more frequent inspections of facilities using infrared devices, install better "pneumatic controller" valves, and repair leaks without unnecessary delay. These rules would apply only along Colorado's heavily populated Front Range — not in western Colorado despite significant oil and gas activity there.
“Every summer, Colorado kids suffer more than 30,000 asthma attacks attributable to the oil and gas industry’s smog.
— Bruce Baizel, Earthworks energy program director
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The Colorado Air Quality Control Commissioners were deliberating late Friday after two days of hearings. Oil and gas industry leaders, who helped develop the rule, largely supported it on the condition it would not be applied statewide.
Colorado Oil and Gas Association president Dan Haley told the eight commissioners present that the industry "strongly encourages" them to adopt the rules with minor adjustments and only apply them to Front Range facilities.
"Industry worked hard, along with other stakeholders, to find a compromise," Haley told The Denver Post. However, he added, "more inspections doesn't equate to cost-effective emissions reductions. In fact, additional inspections could actually increase emissions as we drive more to these sites and find fewer and fewer leaks."
Tougher rules to reduce pollution from oil and gas wells, tanks and other facilities reflect broader CDPHE efforts to comply with federal air quality health standards that Colorado has violated for years. State officials plan to meet the 2008 ozone limit by 2018 to avoid potential Environmental Protection Agency penalties, including loss of highway funds. Then, they'll focus on meeting the 70 ppb limit that became law in 2015.
That limit has not been implemented. President Donald Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt this year declared federal authorities would defer meeting that standard. But Pruitt in August withdrew that deferral, after a related court ruling, and still could take action to delay or kill the 70 ppb limit.
Western Colorado residents and environment groups argued that the tougher air pollution rule should apply statewide.
"Every summer, Colorado kids suffer more than 30,000 asthma attacks attributable to the oil and gas industry's smog," Earthworks energy program director Bruce Baizel said.
"Failing to protect the Coloradans most vulnerable to this type of pollution — our children — is unacceptable," Baizel said. "We need statewide safeguards on ozone to ensure all Coloradans can breathe easy."
However, the Environmental Defense Fund and a local government coalition embraced a Front Range-only approach for now, with an agreement to study over the next two years extending the rule to cover oil and gas facilities statewide.
"Make no mistake, we have a long way to go to address the air quality and climate pollution problems that we face throughout Colorado, and we are eager to dig in," EDF regional director Dan Grossman said. "But (Friday's) decision marks critical progress in the effort to minimize pollution from the oil and gas sector."
Beyond the oil and gas industry, other main sources of ozone pollution include vehicles — determined largely by federal fuel efficiency standards — and pollution that wafts into Colorado from other states and Asia. Recent studies have estimated more than 60 percent of ozone in Colorado comes from outside the state.
Similarly, oil and gas industry pollution from western Colorado can migrate toward Front Range areas deemed out of compliance with federal health standards, worsening ozone pollution.
"We recognize that the contribution outside the 'non-attainment areas' is important," Regional Air Quality Council executive director Ken Lloyd told commissioners Friday.
While RAQC supports the proposed Front Range-only rules, ozone wafting into and out of the state requires further study, Lloyd said. "We need to look at this. What we would support is the agreement … for looking at what we might need to do statewide. The two-year process is appropriate."