Proposed Colorado Air Quality Standards Need to be Stronger
By Catherine Collentine, Sierra Club Beyond Natural Gas Colorado Campaign Representative
Successful ballot measures in Colorado to ban or place moratoriums on hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") built momentum to get methane emissions regulated in new statewide air-quality standards released in late November. In last month's elections, all four of the local ballot initiatives to halt or ban fracking in Colorado communities passed. Industry outspent community activists 40 to 1, but the people of this state got their message across loud and clear that they don't want fracking near their homes, schools, or communities.
These big wins were followed by the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission proposing a set of emissions standards that would, if enacted, lead to a significant reduction in emissions of ozone-inducing methane and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC) -- chemicals which form ground-level ozone (commonly known as smog) -- and emissions from natural gas drilling and fracking operations in the state.
While these rules are a step in the right direction to regulate the natural gas industry and would make Colorado the first state in the nation to regulate methane emissions, more action is needed. Colorado is out of compliance with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) air-quality standards along the population centers of the Front Range, where four out of five Coloradans live. (Colorado's population is about 5.2 million; more than 4 million live along the Front Range.)
The serious health effects of poor air quality are borne by citizens, especially young children and the elderly who suffer from asthma and other upper respiratory ailments. The natural gas industry is exempt from significant federal environmental regulations including the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. Through exemptions and lack of regulation, natural gas operations have been allowed to expand without safeguards for public health and the environment. The Air Quality Control Commission rules are necessary to slow this out-of-control polluting by drilling operations.
The proposed rules provide a promising start to significantly reducing methane and other pollutants from Colorado's oil and gas operations, but they must be strengthened further before they are finalized. A final rule must ensure that local control is given to communities to determine if they want destructive fracking in their backyards. The rules must address both the health and climate impacts of drilling and fracking, and require state-of-the-art technology to maximize emission reductions and tighten the timeline for leak detection and repair provisions.
This is our opportunity to hold the natural gas industry accountable to our citizens, communities, and the health of our environment. We look forward to making sure that all voices are heard, especially people facing the prospect of drilling near their homes and neighborhood schools, and those whose health and quality of life are at stake. We will work with the Air Quality Control Commission and the administration of Governor Hickenlooper -- as well as with other stakeholders in this process -- to push for the highest air-quality standards possible.