Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed strengthening the national air quality standard for ground-level ozone, recommending an ozone standard within a range of 0.070 to 0.075 parts per million. If these lower ozone levels are approved, non-compliance rates will soar and areas across the West Slope, with air quality levels already impacted by oil and gas development, will likely fail the standard.The EPA’s proposal to strengthen air quality standards is a poignant reminder to West Slope residents of the serious health impacts resulting from poor air quality and should motivate considerable thought about current and proposed development in the region. The Colorado Air Pollution Control Division has observed an increase of ozone levels in rural areas that experts believe is attributable, in large part, to the current oil and gas boom. Ozone levels at a variety of locations throughout western Colorado are approaching (and occasionally exceeding) federal standards.Western slope residents should keep in mind that ozone levels associated with current oil and gas development represent only the tip of the iceberg: Impacts resulting from proposed oil shale development could be far more serious with a wider array of pollutants.Contemporary proposals for underground production and extraction of oil shale developed by Shell, Chevron, and EGL will create immense demand for energy and may result in devastating impacts to air quality. Though energy companies have not committed to use of any particular type of energy, the power requirements of a new oil shale industry in western Colorado and Utah will likely come primarily from coal-fired power plants. Use of coal at anticipated levels will produce enough pollution to roll back years of air quality gains and inject massive amounts of global warming greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.A one million barrel-per-day industry, the low end of the range envisioned by federal officials, will require close to three times the amount of electricity produced in all of Colorado in 2005. Pollution from the estimated 12,000 megawatts of necessary new capacity will darken the skies, add mercury to water supplies, create new sources of acid rain and snow, and threaten the health of local residents who suffer from impaired respiratory systems.Potential air pollution impacts of a 1 million barrel-per-day oil shale industry could include: The release of more than 105 million tons of carbon dioxide, or a roughly 80 percent increase in the amount of CO2 emitted by all existing electric utility generating units in 2005 in Colorado, Wyoming and Utah combined. Sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions could increase by over 35,000 tons per year each. To put this in perspective, that’s 20 percent more sulfur dioxide and 16 percent more nitrogen dioxide than was emitted by all of the electrical generating units in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming in 2002. Such emissions, if concentrated in the Piceance Basin, could have a significant impact on visibility and nitrogen deposition at nearby pristine and protected areas such as the Flat Tops, Maroon Belles, and Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Areas.The estimates above are best-case scenarios, based on meeting the power needs for oil shale production with 75 percent coal and 25 percent natural gas, the current utility mix in Colorado. If volatility in the natural gas markets keeps prices high, simple economics will push a more coal-intensive capacity expansion.Legislation pending before the House of Representatives would do away with current deadlines that require the Bureau of Land Management to rush into setting up a leasing program before critical questions about oil shale’s viability and its impact on the environment are properly addressed. In addition, U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-CO, is expected to introduce an amendment that will prohibit the BLM from completing its commercial oil shale leasing program, or issuing any commercial oil shale leases until the BLM’s oil shale research and development process determines the feasibility and likely impacts of a commercial industry.With possible air quality impacts as significant as those outlined above, oil shale development deserves more thorough analysis than the BLM is proposing. Public health depends upon it.Our regular columnist, Andy Stone, is on vacation this week. Peter Hart is a conservation analyst and staff attorney for the Wilderness Workshop in Carbondale.
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