House committee hearing on climate change sparks natural gas debate

U.S. reps came to Colorado to learn about how the state is tackling climate change, regulating natural gas

Rep. Joe Neguse, of Boulder, serves on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis at the University of Colorado Law School campus on Aug. 1, 2019. (Photo courtesy Sally Tucker)
Rep. Joe Neguse, of Boulder, who serves on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, at committee hearing at the University of Colorado Law School campus on Aug. 1, 2019. (Photo courtesy Sally Tucker)

The first field hearing of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis briefly turned into a cross-examination by Rep. Joe Neguse of an oil and gas industry executive who touted the environmental and social benefits of natural gas. 

The exchange was part of a larger discussion at the University of Colorado Law School in Boulder —  Neguse’s home turf — on how Colorado is tackling climate change, efforts that will be shared with other committees in Congress next year. The classroom was packed with about 250 people who listened in as the bipartisan committee took testimony from local experts and elected officials. Protesters gathered outside in the morning, wearing red robes, their faces covered with images of clocks all set to just before midnight, a message that time to address climate change is all but out. 

Gov. Jared Polis told committee members that Colorado is working toward powering its electric grid entirely with renewable energy like wind and solar by 2040. He also mentioned landmark legislation — Senate Bill 181 — that will lead to more stringent oil and gas regulations. He championed the state’s “Just Transition Office,” which is designed to help workers in fossil fuel industries transition into the renewable energy sector. 

Gov. Jared Polis prepares to testify before the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis at the University of Colorado Law School campus on Aug. 1, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

After some back-patting, Colorado’s representatives began asking sharper questions about natural gas. 

Chris Wright, CEO of Liberty Oilfield Services, told the committee that natural gas burns cleaner than coal and is cost-competitive, which, he said, lifts people out of poverty and improves health outcomes. Over-regulating the industry in the U.S., he warned, could drive production overseas, where regulations are laxer and, as a result, could drive up global greenhouse gas emissions. 

“(It) leads to some counter-intuitive conclusions,” Wright said. 

But Neguse, who represents several Front Range communities that have enacted moratoriums on drilling, brought the argument back to the U.S. oil and gas industry. 

“I want to drill down a little bit,” Neguse said. “This notion that natural gas is quote: ‘helping to clean our air.’ You’re familiar with the acronym VOCs, volatile organic compounds, correct?

“Sure am,” Wright said. 

“And you would concede that some VOCs are known to be directly hazardous to human health,” Neguse asked. 

“That’s correct,” Wright replied.

Neguse cited research by the National Institutes of Health finding VOCs cause eye irritation, dizziness, visual disorders, memory problems, damage to the central nervous system and, in some cases, cancer. He sited monitoring at the Boulder Reservoir indicating VOCs waft into Boulder County from the oil and gas patch in Weld County. 

“Given all of that, I suspect that you will agree with me that fracking can cause health risks?” Neguse asked. 

“All energy production involves health risks. All…” Wright said. 

“I would disagree with you there,” Neguse interrupted. 

He said the committee has been touring local research labs in the area, such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, NREL, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research, NCAR. He asked, “Are you familiar with which industry is the top producer of VOCs along the Front Range?” 

“The largest producer of VOCs in Colorado is naturally occurring sources,” Wright replied, pointing to a 2017 study by researchers at Princeton University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that found air from Asia contributes to smog levels in the western U.S. states

‘Well, I disagree with you there,” Neguse said. He added, “The oil and gas industry is the top producer.” 

A 2017 study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research found oil and gas emissions make up the largest share of volatile organic compounds in the Front Range’s “nonattainment zone.” The non-attainment zone is a designation for failing to meet federal air quality regulations. VOC emissions from oil and gas facilities, combined with nitrogen oxides, the majority of which come automobile tailpipes, mix with sunlight to form ground-level ozone. 

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DeGette, who does not serve on the committee but who was present Thursday, piggybacked on Neguse’s line of questioning. She questioned Suzanne Jones, the mayor of Boulder, to ask about why the city recently extended a drilling moratorium. 

“There are a lot of public health impacts that come from oil and gas drilling,” Jones replied. 

Natural gas emits fewer greenhouse gases than coal, Jones said, but that advantage can be wiped out if drilling equipment leaks methane, a potent greenhouse gas. 

“Our economy is very much based on a high quality of life. Its wonderful vistas. Its wonderful outdoors. Being able to recreate and breathe clean air.” She added, ”Fracking is at odds with the basis of that.” 

After the nearly three-hour hearing, some people said they were still processing all the information presented. Climate change is complex, Mark Calkin, a resident from Castle Pines, told The Colorado Independent. Sometimes facts can be manipulated, he continued, pointing to the conflicting interpretations of the sources of VOCs.  

Knowing that, Neguse cited an old adage during a conversation with The Colorado Independent. 

“We’re all entitled to our own opinions,” he said, “but not our own facts.”

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