EPA should follow Colorado's lead regulating oil and gas

Colorado Gov. Jared PolisJared Schutz PolisColorado governor signs 'red flag' gun bill Colorado governor expected to sign net neutrality bill Colorado sheriff says 'red flag' gun bill doesn't address mental health MORE (D) is about to set a national precedent of the best kind: He will sign a law putting Coloradans’ public health, safety and welfare first when the state considers whether and how to permit oil and gas production.

When the “Protect Public Welfare Oil And Gas Operations” bill becomes law, it will also reinforce municipalities’ right to govern the oil and gas industry as they do other industries. Hard as it may be to believe, in every other significant oil and gas producing state the oil and gas industry’s interests come first.

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For the past four years, Earthworks’ thermographers have documented normally invisible air pollution from oil and gas facilities across the country, including Colorado. The pollution includes both health-harming volatile organic compounds and climate pollutants like methane, which is 86 times worse for climate than carbon dioxide. 

Weld County, home to the lion’s share of Colorado’s fracking boom, provides a perfect example of the importance of this legislation. It shows how it will change Colorado’s approach to oil and gas oversight, and how it provides a model for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other states to follow.

In February 2018, at the request of a local resident, Earthworks visited the Speer Compressor Station operated by AKA Energy Group LLC in Weld County just outside the town of Erie. Our certified thermographer used optical gas imaging technology to reveal a 200-ft plume of pollution traveling from a device called a condensate stabilizer tower toward nearby homes.

Together with residents, we filed complaints with Colorado’s oil and gas regulator, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which referred the complaints to Colorado’s Department of Public Health and Environment to investigate.

Later in February, the department’s investigation revealed AKA was operating and had operated the polluting tower for three years without permission while spewing out 213.94 tons of volatile organic compounds. No notice, no permit to construct — and no permit to control emissions, in violation of at least three state air quality regulations. In January 2019 — almost a year after we filed the complaint — AKA settled the violations. They will pay about $57,000 and install a flare on the tower to burn off its pollution.

While good news as far as it goes, penalizing scofflaw polluters is a reaction after the fact to health threats that already exist — in this case three years afterward. It doesn’t prevent oil and gas production’s health threats in the first place. The new law will change that by revising the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s mission from an agency built to “foster” oil and gas development to one that will “regulate” it. No longer will the commission weigh public health in a balance tilted toward industry. Instead, they will regulate “in a manner that protects” health and the environment.  

Under this law, the commission will not give complaints like ours to other agencies, nor allow three years of unabated volatile organic compounds pollution. Instead, they will create safeguards, including continuous monitoring near homes and more frequent leak detection and repair protocols that reduce hazardous air pollutants, volatile organic compounds, and methane.

The law also allows impacted communities to ask local or municipal governments for help. This reform bill empowers communities most affected — those closest to oil and gas operations — by allowing local governments to review proposed locations, conduct inspections, impose fees or enforce noise measures.

Communities that have or might have oil and gas operations nearby deserve responsive government that values their health and the climate. SB19-181 will almost certainly set an example for other communities suffering from the harmful pollution caused by oil and gas operations and states looking to protect their residents.

Yet, no matter how effective Colorado’s new oil and gas statute is, it cannot substitute for strong federal oversight of oil and gas production. Pollution doesn’t respect state boundaries. Nor should an American’s health be contingent upon what state they reside in. We hope Colorado’s example will ultimately be copied by the U.S. EPA.

Bruce Baizel is Earthworks' Energy Program director. He lives and works in Durango, Colorado.

This piece has been updated.