Families on the front lines of mining, drilling, and fracking need your help. Support them now!

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

On March 22nd, 2024, we observed an uncontrolled release of methane and other volatile organic compounds from an unidentified source on a well pad owned by Civitas in East Greeley.

The neighborhoods in this part of Greeley are considered cumulatively impacted communities according to Colorado’s environmental justice mapping tool (Colorado Enviroscreen). That means the people who live in these communities experience more environmental, social, and economic burdens than 80% of Colorado communities and, according to the state of Colorado, even other disproportionately impacted (DI) communities. 

In 2023, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) finalized a plan in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for enhanced enforcement in DI communities. The aim is to not only ensure compliance with air quality regulations but to remind polluting operations that they are being “actively monitored” for compliance (EPA-CDPHE MOU Workplan). This is critical from our view on the ground because, as we noted in our comments on the work plan, Colorado’s much lauded regulation of the oil and gas industry still relies on operators to monitor themselves. This is also the same view of many people living in DI communities.

Unfortunately, if the response by the state to this pollution event from Civitas is any indication, there is still a damning disconnect between the plan and reality in frontline communities.

When we shared the video with CDPHE’s Air Pollution Control Division (APCD), they promptly shared it with Civitas. Civitas responded that what we had observed was a maintenance crew venting gas from a piece of equipment in order to depressurize it. Because most emission events during maintenance activities are exempt from regulatory compliance, this would conveniently mean that the pollution did not violate any rules. But we did not observe any crew members on site during the 20 minutes we conducted our survey and our video shows no crew members on site (Have a look for yourself!)

 Photo taken of site conditions during the emission event. Source of emissions identified by red circle.

We then asked the state agency if Civitas could produce a record of the maintenance crew’s presence or some documentation that a maintenance activity occurred at the time of our observation. Civitas did not present any evidence. Instead, after consulting with Civitas again, the APCD reported back to us that the activity the operator described as having occurred was exempt from reporting requirements. 

So, let’s pause to summarize how CDPHE has decided to handle more stringent enforcement of rules to protect the health of DI communities: 

1) Earthworks documents uncontrolled pollution from a facility in a DI community.  

2) APCD relies on Civitas to evaluate the evidence.

3) The operator contradicts our observations without any apparent substantiation

4) APCD concludes that the agency cannot require Civitas to produce evidence because the activity Civitas claims to have occurred does not need to be reported.

That’s not “enhanced enforcement.” That’s a loophole you can release a lot of harmful pollution through. 

Rhetoric vs Reality

Governor Polis and his administration would have Coloradans believe that pollution from the oil and gas industry is being addressed and that the abysmal air quality on the Front Range is soon to be a thing of the past, but taking him at his word would be an exercise in collective delusion. The reality on the ground in Colorado does not reflect Governor Polis’ rhetoric, and it never will so long as the Governor and Colorado’s regulatory agencies allow operators like Civitas to define reality for those in DI communities and in Colorado at large. 

An enforcement regime that relies on self-monitoring and self-reporting is not a real enforcement regime. Regulators in Colorado continue to be limited to simply taking a polluter’s word when it comes to pollution events on oil and gas sites, even when those sites are located in communities that regulators are supposed to be targeting for enhanced enforcement. 

As for Civitas, their behavior in relation to this documented episode of pollution is nothing new. The company claims to be Colorado’s “first carbon neutral energy operator,” but can show little to no evidence to support the claim. Our observations of emissions from its operations, including those with best management practices in place, suggest otherwise. 

Emissions from Civitas fracking operation outside Aurora in late March 2024.

As it stands, Governor Polis’ legacy on protecting DI communities in Colorado looks a lot like empty promises and business as usual. The work plan with the EPA offers a way for the Governor to make good on at least some promises but it is ultimately only words on paper until something changes on the ground. So long as the oil and gas industry is given the benefit of the doubt rather than the burden of proof, frontline communities will suffer the consequences of unchecked pollution.