John Colson: Gas-patch leaks part of discussion at Rifle meeting
April 16, 2018
When I first came to the Roaring Fork Valley in 1978, I was stunned by the quality of the clean air that was a hallmark of mountain living, having moved here to get out from under the tainted skies of Midwestern urban living.
Along with the region's other environmentally salubrious attributes, such as clean water, low levels of automobile traffic and a welcome lack of subservience to the builders of highways and chain stores, living here offered a kind of paradise.
These days, of course, Garfield County is home to the kind of automotive congestion more commonly associated with Denver and other metro areas, along with more than 11,000 oil and gas wells and the attendant worsening in air quality that inevitably accompanies the advent of such industries, although the exact amount of air pollution coming from wells, pumping stations, transmission lines and the like remains a hot topic of debate.
The air around here is not what it was 40 years ago, to be sure, and likely will not be again in the foreseeable future.
But efforts are underway to try to minimize the smog that can clearly be seen in the skies over the Western Slope.
Today at 3 p.m. in the unlikely venue of a remote substation of the Garfield County Sheriff's Office near the Rifle airport, there is to be a hearing of the Colorado Air Quality Control Division.
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The Division wants to hear from area residents regarding the AQCD's ongoing promulgation of rules governing the monitoring of oil and gas facilities for leaks and laying out rules for repairing those leaks in order to keep the region's air as clean as possible.
This is a rather critical issue in that the state last year stiffened its rules for what the bureaucrats call LDAR, for Leak Detection and Repair, but only for the region known as the Denver Metro/North Front Range (DM/NFR) counties where the bulk of Colorado's oil and gas fields are being drilled, fracked and pumped out.
The counties covered by the tighter regulations have long been listed as "non-attainment" areas, meaning they do not meet minimum air-quality standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
At issue in the Rifle meeting is whether to extend the same protections to the entire state, including the Western Slope counties where the oil and gas industry goes hand-in-glove with local county governments, an area which was exempted in the 2017 rules change following lengthy negotiations and compromise.
According to a Nov. 16 joint statement from the Environmental Defense Fund (or EDF, a watchdog organization often at odds with oil and gas interests) and the industry-supporting Colorado Oil & Gas Association (COGA), the enactment of the rules came from the EDF working "collaboratively" with industry representatives.
Reading between the lines, one could sense the EDF's Colorado director of state programs, Dan Grossman, was in effect speaking through moderately clenched teeth in describing the talks and the result, as was COGA President and CEO Dan Haley. Both men were well aware that a whole new round of talks would be set up to determine whether these rules should be amended to cover the whole state, and it's a safe bet that they don't agree about it.
In a recent alert sent out by the Western Colorado Congress, an umbrella organization that supports local groups working on environmental and other issues around the Western Slope, WCC staff director Emily Hornback noted that, while most of the western part of the state meets the EPA's air pollution minimums, "Here in Western Colorado we have our own problems with air pollution, especially during our winter inversions (when cold temperatures keep air pollution trapped close to the ground)."
Predictably, the oil and gas industry and its advocates in this region are resisting the idea of expanding the rules to cover the entire state.
In fact, a coalition of Garfield, Mesa, Moffatt, Montezuma and Rio Blanco counties, known collectively as EPAC or the Energy Producing Attainment Counties ("attainment" refers to satisfying federal pollution mandates), in 2014 issued an 18-page, linguistically dense document styled like a court brief, to argue against the AQCC's apparent willingness to expand the LDAR program over the whole state.
The document singles out Garfield County as a paragon of pollution-control efforts, though some of those who live in the western part of the county (where the gas patch is as dense as anywhere in the state) see things quite differently.
Movies were made that focused on the problems experienced by neighbors of the drilling rigs and other facilities dotting the western part of the county.
While gas-patch workers and other industry supporters extolled its benefits on everything from its sizable paychecks to the industry's nationally touted boost to the energy producing profile of the United States, many residents complained bitterly about tainted wells, polluted air and the increasing danger of driving on backcountry roads plied by speeding gas company trucks.
When a gas storage facility sprung a serious leak in 2013, spilling thousands of gallons of toxic liquids into Parachute Creek, some industry critics hoped it would be the beginning of a true reckoning about the hazards the industry poses to its neighbors. But aside from a lot of newspaper ink devoted to the mess, very little changed in the industry's fortunes or the neighbors' misfortunes.
It's a complicated story, to be sure, and one that begs for a comprehensive study of the the issues involved.
But for now, the controversy surrounding the oil and gas boom of Western Colorado rumbles along, and today's meeting in Rifle is but one more chapter.
I'll be there to observe the proceedings, and undoubtedly will be offering my take on things in a future column, so stay tuned.
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