Each morning the Earth turns east in its orbit and the sun’s rays hit the highest peaks in Colorado. As the foothills and mountains heat up, the cool air that cascaded down them at night heats and rises up and away. As this nearly daily cycle occurs, air is drawn in from the eastern plains to replace the rising air of the foothills. Unfortunately for Front Range communities, this replacement air comes from an area where large numbers of oil and gas wells spew ozone precursors including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) into the air. As these pollutants are drawn west toward the mountains, they too are heated by the sun and undergo a photochemical reaction, becoming ozone. This ozone is trapped in polluted air and eddies above western parts of Golden, Boulder, Loveland and Fort Collins. And as a result, this area is known to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the Northern Colorado Front Range (NCFR) Nonattainment Area.
Detlev Helmig, associate research professor at the Institute of Arctic & Alpine Research (INSTAAR), described this process to BW on a scorching August afternoon. He says this airflow pattern has likely been going on for millennia, and is simply a result of Front Range topography. But what is in the air today is not what has always been there: The ozone precursors, and therefore the ozone, are relatively new, historically speaking. They come from a variety of sources, but in this region, the oil and gas industry is the predominant source of VOCs, according to Helmig.
Summertime ozone is a problem in Colorado’s northern Front Range, where concentrations periodically exceed the current 75 parts per billion (ppb) health standard set by the EPA. Maximum summertime ozone in Denver has increased slightly in recent decades, in contrast with many locations in the eastern United States, where maximum summertime ozone has decreased significantly in response to emissions reductions, according to a report by the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder (CIRES). Oil and gas emissions in northeastern Colorado sometimes push ozone levels over the EPA standard.
According to Lisa McKenzie, assistant professor in the CU Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, there are several studies that have been done along Colorado’s northern Front Range that indicate the oil and gas sector is contributing anywhere from 30–40 percent of the ground-level ozone that we’re seeing along the Front Range, including VOCs and NOx.
“That impacts millions of people, not just those who live within site of oil and gas operations, because that’s the distance that air travels during half a day,” Helmig says. He estimates this half-day range to be 50 miles.
According to the EPA, ozone can make it more difficult to breathe deeply and vigorously. It also causes shortness of breath, pain when taking a deep breath and can cause coughing and a sore or scratchy throat. It can even damage the airways through inflammation and aggravate lung diseases such as asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. It increases the frequency and severity of asthma attacks, and it makes the lungs more susceptible to infection. And finally, it can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and it continues to damage the lungs even after the symptoms have disappeared.
A study published on Aug. 13 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that living in areas of elevated ozone pollution could have impacts equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes each day. “In fact, the researchers found that if the ambient ozone level where you live is 3 ppb higher compared to another location, in just 10 years, you could increase your odds of emphysema by roughly the equivalent of smoking a pack of cigarettes every day for 29 years.”
A 2018 EPA study predicts we will see an estimated 970 ozone-related premature deaths for the year 2025 nationwide from oil and gas pollution, including 34 such deaths in Colorado.
Helmig says that because of the way ozone behaves here, on average, it’s actually the communities downwind from the pollution sources that frequently end up with the higher ozone, as opposed to the communities where the ozone-producing pollutants are released. He notes this is specifically true in the Denver-Julesburg Basin in Weld County, which doesn’t see ozone levels as high as Front Range communities because they get clean air from the east in the aforementioned airflow process which transports their pollution west. This research has become increasingly relevant in recent days. On Aug. 8, the EPA announced the Denver Metro/North Front Range ozone non-attainment area did not meet the 2008 National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) by the specified deadline and should therefore be reclassified from a moderate to a serious non-attainment area.
According to the EPA, the consequences of this failure mean that “Under the Clean Air Act, areas that do not achieve national standards within specific time-frames are ‘bumped up’ to the next level of non-attainment to secure additional measures to achieve compliance.”
But who is at fault for this Front Range failure? According to a 2017 paper co-authored by Helmig, the abundance of high ozone transport from the oil and gas heavy Denver-Julesburg Basin into the Northern Colorado Front Range suggests that the oil and gas VOC emissions play an important role in our local NAAQS exceedances. And he’s not alone in this assessment. According to a Denver Post article from April 2019, “In Colorado, state health officials recently testified to lawmakers that the oil and gas industry is by far the biggest source of VOCs and a significant source of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas that’s causing climate change.”
EPA’s proposed action would require the state to revise its air quality plans and look at additional control technologies and sources to make progress on reducing ozone-forming emissions, according to an EPA press release. Some of these “serious”-area requirements would be effective as soon as this federal action is finalized, and could include things such as lower-emissions thresholds for permitting large point sources of pollution. The EPA’s proposal would also set a new deadline of July 20, 2021, for the Denver/NCFR area to attain the 2008 ozone standard.
If finalized, the potential impact on large-source emission permits would lower the threshold each permit holder could emit from 100 tons of VOCs per year to 50 tons of VOCs per year.
According to data compiled by the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment, there are about 600 permitted companies that could face these more stringent requirements under the proposed rule change. Considering that there are 52,000 active oil and gas wells and thousands of production platforms in Colorado, the 600 number means that despite being the primary cause of the Front-Range pollution that has sparked this EPA action, most of these wells and platforms will likely be exempt from tougher regulations.
That’s because, as has been previously reported by BW, the vast majority of all oil and gas wells drilled after 1980 have been exempted from being considered point sources for pollution under the Clean Air Act, no matter how many dangerous contaminants they put into the air. While a large oil and gas production platform may spew tons of VOCs into the air each year. It is exempt, according to the Natural Resource Defense Council, unless it falls within the city limits of a city with more than a million residents. In other words, the only non-exempt polluting oil and gas wells in Colorado would have to be located within the city of Denver.
So even though the NRDC found that the 400-plus gas wells in Garfield County produced 30 tons of benzene — approximately 20 times more than the largest oil refinery in Denver, which does fall under the Clean Air Act — they aren’t regulated under the Clean Air Act. And the same is true for the tens of thousands of Weld County oil and gas wells that are causing much, if not most, of the Front Range’s air quality issues. For now it is unclear how stricter point source regulations can solve our communities’ pollution problems so long as the largest source of pollution remains exempt from the Clean Air Act.
EPA will be accepting public comment on its proposed action for a 30-day period that began Aug. 15. The agency will also hold a public hearing at the agency’s regional office in Denver on Sept. 6.
The EPA’s action didn’t come about because of the agency’s own efforts. It was the result of a lawsuit filed against the EPA by WildEarth Guardians that compelled it to comply with the Clean Air Act. “The state was under a deadline to bring ozone levels into compliance with federal health standards that were adopted in 2008,” according to Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians. “They were under a deadline to do that by July 20, 2018, and they blew that deadline.”
Nichols says EPA didn’t deny they broke the law. “They didn’t fight it at all. It’s really kind of odd,” he says. The judge ruled in WildEarth Guardians’ favor and compelled EPA to hold that the Denver Metro/North Front Range region did indeed fail to attain the required ozone standards.
Nichols says he and his organization are concerned the EPA will find some way to upend the requirement to reduce ozone, saying the Trump administration is “deliberately flouting the law. They’re finding any way possible to accommodate the looters. Our concern is that they will find some way to upend this upgrade. People call it a downgrade; we actually call it an upgrade, in terms of what it means for clean air.”
And that upgrade can’t come soon enough.
Helmig says since climate change is driving temperature increases, which in turn increases the efficiency of ozone production, research studies project what’s known as a climate penalty, which means that for every degree (centigrade) of temperature increase, we can also expect subsequent increases in ozone pollution.
“As the climate warms up in regions where you have ozone production, you would forecast more ozone in the future under the same emission scenarios — if you don’t change the emissions,” Helmig says, “If you bring emissions down, then very likely, ozone production would come down.”
But emissions of ozone precursors from oil and gas aren’t coming down in Colorado, they’re climbing with each new well approved by state regulators. According to a recent analysis by BTU Analytics, Colorado oil production will increase by approximately 39 percent between 2018 and 2024.
Not only is oil and gas extraction driving up ozone production, it’s also contributing — more than previously known — to climate change, according to a new study from a Cornell University researcher recently published in the journal Biogeosciences. Researchers concluded that shale-gas production in North America over the past decade may have contributed more than half of all of the increased emissions from fossil fuels globally and approximately one-third of the total increased emissions from all sources globally over the past decade.
Negative impacts from ozone pollution also extend to the agricultural industry. According to the USDA, areas of elevated ambient ozone pollution can experience significant crop yield loss and that can be devastating to farmers raising sorghum, field corn, winter wheat, soybeans, peanuts and cotton.
Until serious action is taken at the well and production platform level, Front Range residents should expect more ozone-polluted days along with the human health and environmental impacts they cause.
As for now, the Polis administration, by way of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, continue to approve thousands of new oil and gas wells that will continue to pollute Front Range communities. At the current pace, these new oil and gas wells and production facilities are increasing air pollution and global warming in the state far faster than all the small incremental steps being proposed by the Polis administration to combat global warming and poor air quality to date.