In Front Range region suffering from poor air quality, oil and gas drilling hasn’t slowed much

Gov. Jared Polis takes steps to improve Front Range's poor air quality. But his administration still permits activity that makes it worse.

The now operating wells at Crestone's Pratt site flank neighborhoods and the CO national Golf Course. (Photo by Ted Wood/The Story Group)
The now operating wells at Crestone's Pratt site flank neighborhoods and the CO national Golf Course. (Photo by Ted Wood/The Story Group)

In September, Gov. Jared Polis signed an executive order aimed at improving air quality in Colorado’s northern Front Range, a region that is still not in compliance with federal limits on ozone. The poor air quality, he wrote, “seriously threatens the health of vulnerable populations and the overall quality of life in the region.” 

Yet since late January, when his administration took the helm of Colorado’s oil and gas regulatory commission, the state has approved at least 1,100 drilling permits in the region, an analysis by The Colorado Independent found.

Oil and gas companies are the top emitters of volatile organic compounds in the smog-plagued corridor stretching from Douglas County to the southern half of Weld County — a region known as the ozone non-attainment area. Those emissions mix with nitrogen oxides emitted from automobile tailpipes and sunlight to form unhealthy ground-level ozone. 

The overall number of drilling permits approved in Colorado each month has declined about 31% this year compared to the last four years, after Colorado adopted methane regulations in 2014, according to an analysis of state data.

But environmental groups want to see permitting put on hold, in part because the state is updating rules for oil and gas emissions. The state has not denied any permit applications.

“Every new permit [state regulators] issue is just worsening the problem. It’s hypocrisy, for one. You don’t clean up a mess by continuing to make a mess,” said Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for the environmental advocacy group WildEarth Guardians.

On Tuesday, Nichols and Joe Salazar, a former state representative and current executive director of Colorado Rising, a grassroots advocacy group, sent a letter citing their concerns to Jeff Robbins, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). The letter focuses on a separate but related issue: the number of permits the COGCC issues to companies that would allow them to vent or burn off excess gases, a process that releases methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and smog-forming volatile organic compounds into the air.

For that reason, the letter states, all permit approvals in the non-attainment area should be delayed.

In April, Polis signed into law Senate Bill 181, which aims to overhaul oil and gas regulations, including cutting emissions from drilling operations. The law also changed the mission of the COGCC from one of “fostering” drilling to protecting public health, safety and the environment. 

“There is a huge inconsistency,” said Michael Saul, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The commission has a new mission and mandate. But it’s continuing with business as usual.” 

Robbins was unavailable to comment Monday, said Megan Castle, the COGCC’s communications director. 

“SB 181 did not tell the COGCC to stop, have a moratorium or ban oil and gas development,” Castle said in an emailed statement, “nor did it give operators and industry a free pass on permits.” 

Conor Cahill, a spokesperson for the governor, said the administration has taken steps to improve air quality, including helping the state transition to electric vehicles. He said the state has a strong history of reducing emissions from the oil and gas sector.

“SB 181 is clear in its directive to continue that work with further reductions,” Cahill said. “This administration is acting on permits in accordance with statutory obligations and with input from local communities.”

Gov. Jared Polis signed SB-181, a landmark bill overhauling the state's oil and gas regulations, into law on April 16, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)
Gov. Jared Polis signed SB-181, a landmark bill overhauling the state’s oil and gas regulations, into law on April 16, 2019. (Photo by John Herrick)

The nine-county Front Range region that makes up the non-attainment area has failed to meet federal standards since 2004. Ozone exposure is linked to heart attacks and respiratory issues, including asthma. Health experts say people with asthma should stay inside and avoid exercise on days with elevated ozone levels. No region is more affected by industrial pollution, traffic and construction than the majority Latino northeast Denver neighborhood of Elyria-Swansea, where asthma rates exceed the state average. 

The state is still coming up with a plan for how to meet the federal standards. Part of that involves writing new rules aimed at curbing emissions of volatile organic compounds and methane required by Senate Bill 181. 

Also, in August, the state’s Air Quality Control Commission ordered that by 2023, at least 5% of new automobiles sold in Colorado must be electric. Gas and diesel-powered automobiles are the top emitter of nitrogen oxides, an ingredient in smog formation. 

The EPA still deciding whether the state should be given more time to come into ozone compliance. Critics say the delays constitute a favor to the industry; if Colorado’s Front Range is designated as in “serious” violation of the Clean Air Act, many smaller oil and gas operations would have to meet more stringent air pollution requirements to operate. Environmental groups have sued the agency, saying it’s dragging its feet and not following timelines set by the Clean Air Act. 

The oil and gas industry contends that Colorado’s regulations are among the toughest in the nation. This summer, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA) also asked its members to curtail drilling on high ozone days as well. 

COGA President Dan Haley said ozone levels in the non-attainment area have improved. The industry deserves credit, he said.

“Over the past few years industry has plugged and reclaimed more wells, about 6,000, than it has drilled, taking those emissions permanently offline. New wells are much cleaner, with smaller overall footprints, and are better for the environment,” Haley said.

Weld County is the state’s top oil-producing region in the state. About half the county, however, falls outside the Front Range formal non-attainment boundary, which means drillers in the county north of Wellington have less stringent emission requirements. In the last year, the state has approved more than 700 permits to drill in Weld County outside the non-attainment zone, The Colorado Independent found. 

In 2018, the state issued on average 369 drilling permits per month. So far in 2019, the state has issued 317 permits per month.

Part of the difference is due to the steady increase in permit applications last year as the 2018 election neared. Oil and gas companies rushed to get ahead of potential setback regulations proposed on the November ballot. The measure, known as Proposition 112, failed. Also, the prospect of Polis being elected governor made oil and gas companies uneasy; the then-congressman had bankrolled a campaign in 2014 to require drilling rig setbacks from buildings, an effort he later abandoned in a compromise with former Gov. John Hickenlooper.

The COGCC finished the year with a 6,000-permit backlog, more than double the previous year’s end-of-year backlog. 

Another reason for this year’s decline in permit approvals is that the state is taking a closer look at some of these permits. Upon taking office, Robbins developed a list of “objective criteria” under which he would give permits additional analysis to ensure they satisfy the mission of Senate Bill 181 to protect public health, safety and the environment. One of those criteria is when a company seeks permission to vent or flare in the Front Range non-attainment area. 

The COGCC did not have data readily available on the number of flaring permits issued in the non-attainment area when responding to a records request from The Colorado Independent.

Environmental groups believe that all oil and gas operators burn off excess gases for safety reasons. This process, however, contributes to unhealthy ozone formation. And for that reason, advocates argue the state is not following its own permitting guidelines.

“They’re permitting these facilities knowing full well the emissions controls are inadequate,” said Nichols, of WildEarth Guardians. He added: “The legislature and Gov. Polis have spoken. They have to start acknowledging this is a priority.” 

This story was updated at 9:20 PM on Tuesday with a comment from a spokesperson for Gov. Jared Polis. The story was updated again on Oct. 10 to compare this year’s decline in permit approvals to the last four years in order to provide more context. The previous version of the story compared this year’s approval rate to 2018. 

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