COLORADO – Daniel Glick, The Story Group. Colorado’s much-touted regulations on emissions from oil and gas operations have not kept pace with explosive growth in oil and gas activity, resulting in underreported methane leaks, unmonitored releases of toxic chemicals, and substantial contributions to the Denver area’s persistently unhealthy air quality.
Former and current state employees, scientists, environmental watchdogs, oil and gas patch residents and the state’s own records point to a flawed monitoring, inspection, and enforcement framework that has allowed the rapid increase of oil and gas development over the past two decades to continue fouling Colorado’s air. A months-long investigation by The Story Group found that the state does not comprehensively monitor or regulate the industry’s air pollution emissions. In fact, records show that oil and gas companies are still releasing unknown levels of smog-generating and climate-altering pollutants that are not being measured or reported.
One measurable impact of the flawed system: the Denver metro area, with its infamous “brown cloud,” has been in “non-attainment” with federal ozone standards since 2007 – and its smog problem keeps getting worse. Population growth, traffic, and other industrial activity have added more pollution sources into the mix, and last year, the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that parts of Colorado’s most populous region have gone from “marginal” to “serious” non-attainment of federal air quality standards. That new designation would force the state to, among other mandates, more tightly control emissions.
“How much worse does it have to get before we do something about it?” said Matt Sura, an attorney who represents residents and local governments against oil and gas companies and served on former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s 2014 task force to rewrite industry regulations.
The politically powerful industry repeatedly stymied attempts to tighten regulations during Hickenlooper’s tenure, which coincided with Republican control of the state Senate and industry’s concerted political opposition to legislative reforms. State campaign reports show that the oil and gas industry donated more than $125 million over the past four election cycles to political action committees that have aggressively opposed new regulations.
Hickenlooper, who is now running for president, has boasted that his administration implemented Colorado’s “toughest-in-the-nation” regulations on oil and gas. He takes credit for bringing a national environmental group and the state’s biggest oil and gas producers together to craft them.
But air quality kept getting worse under Hickenlooper’s watch. His administration argued that the state was making progress despite ongoing violations of federal standards, attributing some of the increased ozone to “exceptional events” such as wildfires.
Jared Polis, who replaced Hickenlooper as governor in January, is taking a different tack. He recently announced that his administration will not seek a reprieve from enacting tougher EPA standards, and instead will more aggressively address the brown cloud that often hovers over the region. Polis noted that ground-level ozone levels are so high that the state had issued warnings against exercising outdoors an average of more than once a week during the previous year: 55 days total.
“There’s too much smog in our air, and instead of hiding behind bureaucracy and paperwork that delay action, we are moving forward to make our air cleaner now,” Polis said.
READ MORE in The Colorado Independent