Field Notes: From the Colorado Front Range, September 2021

A Reality Check

 

In early September we conducted fieldwork in the Front Range on 2-3 and 9-11 September. We investigated 57 oil and gas facilities, including well pads that are currently drilling or fracking, low-producing stripper well facilities, and facilities where we have documented pollution in the past. 

We documented pollution at 12 facilities due to venting tanks, uncombusted emissions, or drilling and fracking operations severe enough to prompt us to file complaints with Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division (APCD). 

However, our biggest takeaway after this investigation is that we have not been able to discern any noticeable reduction in the pollution from the industry despite the Colorado Oil & Gas Conservation Committee (COGCC) and the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) having had a year since the mission change and new regulations came into effect.

One year gone and Polis’ enactment of SB181 is failing

The mission change and new rules and regulations occurred in 2020 due to the passage of SB181. Since that time, Earthworks  has been out in the field monthly with our OGI camera responding to community concerns about odors and pollution from oil and gas facilities. We had faith and were  hopeful that the promised prioritization of public health and environment over oil and gas development would start to become evident on the ground. 

However, month after month has now gone by and we continue to hear from Coloradans who have previously lived with or recently find themselves living on the frontlines of oil & gas development. Despite the aim of the legislation, Coloradans living under the Polis administration still live the all-too-familiar horror stories of ongoing quality of life and health impacts. 

Failure of Polis Admin to fulfill promise of SB181 & prioritize health first. 

Earthworks cumulative summary findings as of September 2021:

  • Intense pollution from drilling and fracking operations is still happening  less than 1000 ft from residential homes. This distance is less than half of the newly established minimally safe setback distance of 2000ft. Yet, a grandfather clause and industry’s nefarious flooding of permit applications before new rules were passed means oil & gas development is still starting at a distance the COGCC acknowledges is harmful to human health.
  • Routine Venting of tanks  remains a frequent practice despite a new prohibition on venting.  The reason is that industry has a variety of loopholes to use to vent, such as maintenance activities, operator malpractice, and, on some tanks at low-producing sites, allowable uncontrolled emissions because the emissions from these tanks are estimated to be below the pollution thresholds that would necessitate control devices.
  • Continued pollution is emitting from malfunctioning combustors and from flaring during drilling and fracking operations despite prohibitions on flaring and assurances that emissions control devices on many combusted sources in CO are 95% efficient.
  • Meanwhile, the burden of proof remains on community members who are exposed to chronic pollution to prove that they are being harmed. To date,  their complaints and first-hand accounts are not considered evidence of possible violations. This is despite the promise of SB181 that public health would be prioritized above the interests of the industry

Broken promises mean the number of Coloradans threatened is increasing under Polis

The Polis administration, COGCC, and AQCC have passed rules and made promises but Colorado’s communities and environment are still being impacted by oil and gas development.  Meanwhile, there will be a new rulemaking this December at the AQCC to adopt the additional regulations that will be required to achieve a 60% reduction in emissions from the oil and gas sector by 2030. If the current hard-won regulations are not achieving the intended results for public health and safety then what confidence can we have that additional regulations will put Colorado on track to achieve the goals set out in its climate roadmap?

The AQCC must take bold action in this rulemaking to achieve short term emissions reductions, but that bold action needs to also be met with bold action from APCD in enforcing existing regulations and holding chronic polluters accountable and from COGCC in ending the permitting of new facilities. As long as our state continues to permit new fracking, continues to allow pollution from existing facilities, and continues to meet the concerns of impacted communities with shallow reassurances we are never going to be on track to hit our climate goals or to realize the promise of SB181.