CO west slope violates smog standards

Drilling in Garfield County, CO brackets the Colorado River. Photo courtesy: Endocrine Disruption Exchange

Drilling in Garfield County, CO brackets the Colorado River.
[Photo courtesy: Endocrine Disruption Exchange]

Guardians Calls for More Aggressive Action to Cut Fracking Pollution in Colorado
2013 Smog Season Brings Major Clean Air Challenges for State; Western Colorado Violates for First Time

Denver—CoWildEarth_Guardians_Logolorado air regulators will give a presentation this Thursday showing that the state’s smog problems are worsening, with monitors on the western slope now violating federal standards for the first time.  In response, WildEarth Guardians is calling on regulators to act more aggressively to reduce pollution and safeguard public health and welfare.

“Colorado’s clean air is being lost to smog in the face of ramped up oil and gas drilling and fracking, expanded coal mining, and other industrial development,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director.  “It’s time for state regulators to stop watching the problem get worse and start taking meaningful steps to curb this harmful pollution.”

Ozone, the key ingredient of smog, forms when air pollution from tailpipes, smokestacks, and oil and gas drilling reacts with sunlight.  A poisonous gas, ozone is linked to a number of adverse health effects, including asthma attacks and even premature death.  Children, seniors, those with respiratory conditions, and even active adults are most at risk.

Because of its danger, the Clean Air Act limits concentrations of ozone in the air to no more than 0.075 parts per million over an eight-hour period.

In a presentation planned for Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission meeting this Thursday, May 16, Air Pollution Control Division staff intends to provide a preview of the 2013 ozone season.  This presentation can be downloaded here >>

The presentation paints a dismal view of Colorado’s smog situation.  So far in 2013, ozone levels have been so high in western Colorado that a monitor in Rangely, located in Rio Blanco County, is now in violation of federal ozone standards.  It’s the first time in history that a site in western Colorado has violated ozone limits.

Although any time ozone concentrations exceed 0.075 parts per million there is cause for health concern, a violation of the standards occurs only when the three year average of the fourth highest annual ozone reading at a monitoring site exceeds 0.075 parts per million.  A violation thus occurs only when air quality is bad for an extended period of time.  It triggers stricter air pollution controls and imposes a mandatory duty on the state to clean up the pollution.

According to the state’s presentation (see slide 11), the current three year average of the fourth highest annual ozone readings at the Rangely monitor is now 0.077 parts per million.  The state’s presentation states that the area is now violating ozone standards.

“With Colorado’s western slope now violating federal smog standards, it’s critical that the state respond quickly to restore our clean air and the health of this state,” said Nichols.  “Smog is clearly a statewide issue and it deserves statewide solutions that work.”

The Rangely violation coincides with exceptionally high ozone concentrations recorded this year at adjacent Utah monitoring sites to the west.  Data shows that eight-hour ozone concentrations exceeded 0.10 parts per million for several days.  A monitor in Vernal, Utah for example, recorded 22 exceedances of the ozone standards and now has a fourth highest reading of 0.102 parts per million, 36% higher than the standard.

The violation also comes as Colorado’s Front Range faces rising smog levels.  Before 2012, only two monitors in the region were violating ozone standards.  However, after 2012, eight monitors now show violations, including monitors in Fort Collins, Greeley, Rocky Mountain National Park (see slides 3 and 5 of presentation), which have never before violated ozone standards.

Seven counties, including Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, and Jefferson, as well as portions of Larimer and Weld, are already considered to be a part of a “nonattainment area” due to violations of the ozone standard.  The state faces a Clean Air Act deadline of December 31, 2015 to bring the entire Front Range into compliance.

The reason for the state’s growing ozone problem is tied to increased oil and gas drilling.  Two key pollutants are responsible for high ozone, including nitrogen oxides, a byproduct of combustion, and volatile organic compounds, which are byproducts of oil and gas drilling.

According to state regulators, oil and gas operations release nearly 50% of all volatile organic compounds in the state, as well as nearly 20% of all nitrogen oxides (see Jan. 2013 presentation by APCD, slides 11-13).  Key sources of pollution include fracking operations, tanks, compressor engines, and drilling rigs.  This data comes as state air regulators are currently permitting more oil and gas activity than ever before, which coincides with a more than twofold increase in active oil and gas wells since 2002 (there are now more than 50,000 wells statewide).

Much of this drilling increase has taken place along the Front Range and in Rio Blanco, Garfield, and other western Colorado counties.

Although state regulators are weighing whether to adopt stronger emission limits for oil and gas operations (see the state’s webpage on the effort here), both along the Front Range and statewide, a rulemaking won’t happen until the end of 2013 at the earliest.  Even then, the state has not indicated it intends to actually reduce emissions, but rather only to ensure that new sources of emissions are controlled, a move that will ultimately allow oil and gas industry emissions to climb higher.  Further, the state is weighing whether to rollback permitting and reporting requirements, a move that WildEarth Guardians’ opposes.

“The state seems poised to do too little too late,” said Nichols.  “With the oil and gas industry continuing to take a tremendous toll on the air we breathe, we need solutions that actually reduce emissions, that increase scrutiny of drilling practices, and that, most importantly, ensure that these serious smog problems don’t happen in the first place.”

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