Colorado farmers join fight for tougher air quality rules

DENVER — Farmers are joining a growing chorus in Colorado calling new proposed state air-quality rules weak and inadequate to address ozone levels that have spiked over the last half decade in the state as gas drilling has spread across the northern Front Range.

Farmers’ complaints add fuel to those being lodged  by environmentalists, business owners and residents of the state’s expanding gas patches — which include a more than 1000 square mile area stretching east to Nebraska from the Rocky Mountains. Agriculture contributes some $40 billion to the state economy every year.

Farm industry representatives argue that higher ozone levels are reducing crop yields and thinning profits to the tune of $24 million.

“It’s the high price of cheap gas,” said Front Range farmer and environmental activist Michael Bowman.

Frank Swain, an energy analyst at Conservation Colorado, said Colorado’s air quality has dropped as gas extraction has boomed.

“The development is going at a breakneck speed,” he said. “In the past 47 months, we’ve seen 5,000 wells drilled on Front Range alone, that’s a little under four wells a day.”

Fracking for natural gas has been hailed not only as an economic windfall for Colorado but also a viable green-energy alternative to coal.

“Conversions from a coal to a natural gas-fired generation has allowed the United States to be the only growth economy in the world with documented decreasing CO2 emissions,” said Doug Flanders, the director of policy and external affairs for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association.

The oil and gas industry falls just behind tourism and agriculture as a revenue generator in the state, bringing $21 billion annually and providing more than 100,000 jobs. But it is also fouling the state’s air. At least 9 counties along the Front Range now fail to meet Environmental Protection Agency basic air-quality standards.

In small town Platteville, located just south of Greeley and hemmed in by gas wells, for example, levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which contribute to low-altitude ozone, are now consistently higher than they are in the world’s most-polluted cities, places like Los Angeles, Mexico City and Beijing, according to Detlev Helmig, a chemist at the Institute of Alpine and Arctic Research at the University of Colorado.

“These compounds do contribute to ozone production, which has a lot of well-established negative health effects on people,” said Helmig. “Ozone causes increased death rates.”

Helmig says high ozone levels similarly stress vegetation, which is why Colorado farmers on both sides of the Continental Divide are seeing reduced yields and profits.

Gerald Nelson, who studies global climate change and food security, is currently stationed in Grand Junction and investigating the long-term impact of ozone on the area’s wine and fruit production.

“In the Grand Valley, with ozone levels between 40 and 70 [parts per billion], you get a yield reduction of 5 percent to 20 percent,” Nelson said. “A 20 percent yield reduction is going to hurt that bottom line.”

Nelson added that for produce like grapes, cherries and peaches, which ripen yearly on the same plant as opposed to crops planted anew every year like corn or wheat, the effects of ozone are long term, impacting quality and quantity of produce for years to come.

And it’s not just VOCs leaking out of industry switches and pipelines. Methane, the gas commodity fracking delivers and that we use to light our homes and charge our cell phones, is also escaping at rates as high as 12 percent over major production areas like the Colorado-Uinta Basin.

The EPA estimates that methane is 20 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than is CO2. Methane is so bad for the environment, in fact, that North Dakota flares about $100 million worth of leaking gas every month, converting it to less-damaging CO2.

“Governor Hickenlooper and the CEO of Noble Energy have both said publicly that the industry needs to have a zero-tolerance policy for air emissions, particularly methane,” said Swain.

He’s referring to statements made over the last year or so while the state Air Quality Commission appointed by Hickenlooper has been at work on the new rules.  Their draft version, released last week, doesn’t target methane specifically nor significantly amp-up industry equipment inspection frequency or technology.

Flanders said drillers have already done a lot to meet the Hickenlooper’s no-emissions goal.

“Industry has spent more than $40 million to install more than 3,000 control devices to reduce ozone precursors,” Flanders said, adding that the control devices catch both methane and VOCs.

There are some 51,400 active wells in Colorado. Under the proposed new rules, 90 percent of them will be inspected for leaks just twice a year.

“It is 100 percent unacceptable to allow companies to spew even more pollutants into the air that my kids have to breathe every time they play outside — to spew them right next to our backyard,” said Andrea Roy, an Erie mother of two in a release from Colorado Moms Know Best, a group formed in response to the state’s declining air standards.

“While I am furious that the rules seem to be getting weaker rather than stronger, I have hope that Governor Hickenlooper will intervene, since he said that not only does he want Colorado to be the healthiest state in the country, but that we should have a zero tolerance policy for methane emissions.”

Swain said Conservation Colorado is keeping a close eye on the rule-making proceedings, which are scheduled to conclude in February.

“The Governor has talked the talk,” he said, “now it’s time for him to walk the walk.”


Correction note: Our original description of the size of the Colorado gas patch was missing a zero. The area is about the size of Rhode Island. 


[ Photo of farmer’s field in Greeley by John Tomasic ]


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