New Air Regs Could Be in Colorado’s Oil & Gas Future

Oct 13, 2013

Colorado has a problem with air pollution… levels of ozone have been going up, and that can cause health problems. So the state is taking a look at tightening up air regulations for drilling companies. But, some say much is being done already. 

Reporter: On a recent weekday night, people sit quietly in a large conference room at the Glenwood Springs Community Center. They’re listening to speakers detail what they say is a growing risk of air pollution from oil and gas operations across Colorado. After one of the speakers finishes, Jennifer Richardson has this question. She’s in the audience.

Jennifer Richardson: “Hi, I live in Battlement Mesa, and we’ve been experiencing a lot of odors and they cause headaches, nausea, and problems with bloody noses and that kind of thing.”

Jennifer Richardson, Garfield County resident after an October 9th meeting held by Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, Roaring Fork Sierra Club, Wilderness Workshop, Western Colorado Congress, and Conservation Colorado.
Credit Elise Thatcher

Reporter: Richardson is worried they’re caused by nearby oil and gas operations... not necessarily from high levels of ozone, but from other combinations of chemicals released into the air during drilling. Both are problems the Colorado health department may be able to prevent in the future. The agency is looking at tightening up air quality regulations for the industry. Will Allison is director of the Air Pollution Control Division.

Will Allison: “One is we’re looking at making certain requirements, that currently only apply in our Front Range, apply statewide.  Such as auto igniters, which reignite a flare when it goes out, or pneumatic devices which emit a lot less.”

Reporter: Both are components that could be added to oil and gas infrastructure, and they could cut down on air pollution.

Will Allison: “We’re also looking at enhanced controls at so called condensate tanks, or other types of storage tank that hold liquids. These can be a significant source of emissions, and finally we’re also focused on so-called fugitive emissions, finding and fixing leaks…”

Reporter: Allison is quick to say Colorado’s current standards are already tight. He points out they served as a model for at least some of the newer EPA regulations for the industry, nationwide. He believes any additional regulations would add to what he describes as an already high standard. David Ludlam is Executive Director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association. He echoes that perspective—especially when it comes to the oil and gas companies in his organization.

David Ludlam: “One example of that, is a sort of a groundbreaking first of its kind study, that our members are doing with Colorado State University and Garfield County, studying the pollutants that come off of drilling and completions activities, and how it interacts with the localized environment.”

Reporter: Ludlam also describes how operators are switching to having drilling rigs and trucks running on natural gas, which can reduce emissions. But there are real problems with air pollution in Colorado, that could be caused in part by oil and gas operations. And as the industry booms in more populated areas of the Front Range, residents living near wells are complaining of feeling sick. This comes as environmental groups have raised questions about whether the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency is more pro industry than protective of public health. Again, David Ludlam, of the West Slope Oil and Gas Association.

David Ludlam: “There’s always room for improvement, and we should always be focused on that, and no matter what industry and no matter what business we are in terms of our emissions and in terms of operations. I do not believe it’s possible to find an industry who’s been more proactive and done more from a technology perspective than ours.”

Reporter: The state’s Air Quality Control Commission will decide early next year whether it will change air pollution requirements for oil and gas operations. Teresa Coons is the only commissioner from the Western Slope. At the meeting in Glenwood Springs last week, she explains it can be hard to figure out whether gas operations are causing health problems. Coons says even scientific studies often can’t pin that down.

Teresa Coons, member of the Air Quality Control Commission for Colorado, speaks at an October 9th meeting held by Grand Valley Citizens Alliance, Roaring Fork Sierra Club, Wilderness Workshop, Western Colorado Congress, and Conservation Colorado.
Credit Elise Thatcher

Teresa Coons: “Very often, people have symptoms that people have can be caused by a number of different things. So it’s often difficult to link a symptom to a specific exposure, most of us are exposed to lots of things during our lifetimes, and there can be a long latent period sometimes between the exposure and the occurrence of a disease.”

Reporter: Garfield County resident Jennifer Richardson says her health problems started about a year and a half ago, when wells started operating across the river from her house in Battlement Mesa. She says it gets worse at night.

Jennifer Richardson: “And it smells like chemical, oily dusty smell, but I have had problems with my nose, I’ve had problems with migraines, gastrointestinal problems, and fatigue, everything on that list that guy had. (Laughs)”

Reporter: She’s referring to a list of symptoms presented by a doctor, showing  how people can react to pollutants released during oil and gas operations. Richardson’s a member of the environmental advocacy group that helped put on the Glenwood Springs event. Now, she says the issue is personal. She plans to write to the Air Quality Control Commission about tightening air regulations. The Commission is expected to decide in February on what air pollution rules need to change.