Point: The state can and should make our air safer to breathe | PostIndependent.com

Point: The state can and should make our air safer to breathe

I was thrilled by the turnout for Tuesday night’s Air Quality Control Commission hearing in Rifle. Dozens of people from five counties came to Rifle to share their personal stories and reasoning for the commission to adopt strong new regulations for the oil and gas industry to limit ozone and methane emissions.

I currently live in Mesa County where I see oil and gas development all around me. It is a big part of the economy in this part of the state and even more so in neighboring Garfield County, which is the second largest producer of natural gas in the state. I used my time before the commission to share an experience I had with regulators and the energy industry that underscores the need for stronger regulations.

A few years ago I went with a group of volunteers to a remote site Mesa County. We pulled up to the well site near our study area and heard a loud bubbling/gurgling/hissing sound. At the gas well, we saw a rusty pipe going down into the ground in a hole filled with water. It was bubbling furiously, releasing lots of methane.

We contacted the well owner, the county, two state agencies that regulate oil and gas operators, and the federal Bureau of Land Management. We were assured that the leak would be fixed right away. Imagine my shock when we went back exactly a year later and absolutely nothing had changed! The well was still bubbling furiously. We were told again that it would be fixed. Months later, we were told that the leak had finally been fixed.

Incidentally, when we first found the problem it was clear that the well operator was fully aware of the problem. They had dug down around the pipe to locate the leak, but hadn’t seen fit to fix it. I have no idea how long it had been leaking before we came on it the first year, but I do know that methane and possibly other toxic pollutants were being released for more than a year after we flagged it to the owner and regulators.

As the former director of environmental health for the city of Aspen, I am keenly aware of the impacts air pollution of all kinds can have on people’s health. In Aspen in the late 1990s, we were required by the state of Colorado to bring our PM 10 pollution under control. Now the state has the opportunity to significantly cut other types of air pollution — ozone, benzene and methane — coming from extraction of natural gas and oil around the state.

Given the clear threat that ozone presents to public health in Colorado, and that methane presents as one of the primary sources of climate change, it makes complete sense for the Air Quality Control Commission to adopt the strong new regulations developed by their staff at their hearing Tuesday to Thursday. I also urge the Commission to adopt an additional rule developed by the Western Colorado Alliance, Grand Valley Citizens Alliance and the Front Range group LOGIC that would require increased inspections of all oil and gas facilities within 1,000 feet of homes, schools and other public areas.

Statewide regulations are needed because the precursor-chemicals that produce ozone travel long distances — so pollution from Mesa County can contribute to increased ozone levels and federal air quality violations on the Front Range or in between.

Also, methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and the largest industrial source of methane emissions is the oil and gas industry. Once released, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide for 20 years. National Geographic cites studies showing that gas wells in the United States are responsible for 60% more methane emissions than the EPA had previously thought. This is due to the many places in gas production and storage where leaks can occur, and how long those leaks can continue if the facilities are not carefully monitored.

When methane is emitted from gas wells, other compounds are emitted with it — benzene, toluene and other cancer-causing compounds. Reducing methane emissions also will reduce emissions of these harmful compounds, so there is a double health benefit to reducing methane emissions from gas wells.

The oil and gas industry has always been a boom-and-bust business. Its prices and profits are affected in large part by how much drilling happens in Texas and other places, and by the oversupply of gas that has resulted from horizontal drilling. Requiring responsible actions like inspecting wells at least twice a year for leaks will not undermine the economics of the industry. It is the right thing to do for our personal health and the health of the planet.

Lee Cassin has lived in western Colorado for 41 years, and spent much of her career fighting air pollution for the city of Aspen.

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