Opinion: Breathing a little easier thanks to new air quality regulations

Mark Pearson is executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance.

Good news for public health and the environment recently, with lots of work ahead. That’s the short version about what’s happening with oil and gas regulations in Colorado.

On Dec. 17, the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) adopted a host of new rules that will reduce ozone, methane and other noxious emissions from oil and gas operations throughout Colorado. In addition, the commissioners agreed to a rule supported by Western Colorado Alliance, Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans (LOGIC) that will require monthly inspections of wells and other infrastructure located within 1,000 feet of homes, schools and businesses, with prompt repairs when leaks are found.

The commissioners deserve a big thanks for taking decisive action to reduce emissions not only on the Front Range where ozone is a persistent problem but throughout the entire state where emissions are also problematic. In Southwestern Colorado, for instance, there is a massive methane cloud that hangs over a 2,400-square-mile area that includes Durango and Cortez. In Garfield County, the American Lung Association has documented worsening ozone levels despite claims from the county commissioners that the air is clean.

By adopting statewide rules, the AQCC recognized that air pollution knows no boundaries and that all Coloradans deserve to breathe clean air, no matter where they live. By adopting tighter regulations near homes and schools, the Commissioners responded to the legitimate concerns that people living in energy-impacted communities across the state have been raising for years.

It is also important to acknowledge that hundreds of residents living in places such as Grand Junction, Rifle, Glenwood Springs, Carbondale, Telluride, Durango and Bayfield took the time to craft arguments in favor of strong statewide regulations and attend hearings to have their voices heard. Their testimony had real effects on the commissioners’ opinions and deliberations. It was our democracy working at its best.

The AQCC will be picking up the mantle again in May 2020 when it considers new rules for pneumatic devices that control pressure in wells, pipelines and storage tanks. These devices are notoriously leak prone, and both industry and conservation groups have been working together for nearly three years to come up with solutions. Throughout the year, the AQCC will take up other regulatory changes that address the mandates of Senate Bill 181, the law passed last year which changes the way oil and gas is regulated in Colorado.

For too many years, state regulators have acknowledged but largely ignored the concerns of citizens living in the shadow of oil and gas wells. Communities like Battlement Mesa in Garfield County live today with wells just a little more than 500 feet from some neighborhoods. Residents regularly report noxious smells and are literally shut into their homes when the wind is blowing the wrong direction.

The new rules adopted last month are an important step in the right direction for communities like Battlement Mesa, but they are just the beginning of a process of regulatory reform that will make our air cleaner and reduce our impact on the climate. There is much work ahead, and we urge residents to remain involved in the coming year.

Leslie Robinson is chair of the Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, based in Garfield County; Steve Allerton is board president of the Western Colorado Alliance for Community Action, based in Grand Junction; and Mark Pearson is executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance, based in Durango.

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