BLM to re-examine air pollution impacts of oil and gas in western Colorado

Smoke rising from a Colorado oil refinery.

World Learning, flickr

When it comes to fixing mistakes regarding human health, is it better late than never?

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) recently announced it will take a second look at the effects of toxic air pollution caused by 34 oil and natural gas drilling projects across western Colorado.

The BLM will analyze, this time in a meaningful way, approximately 1,300 wells in Colorado’s western-central region. No new drilling permits at the contested project sites will be approved until the review is complete.

The agreement, filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado in Denver, is in response to a 2011 federal lawsuit that accused the BLM of dismissing the harmful impacts of air pollution across the region. The settlement is a major victory for The Wilderness Society and other environmental organizations who argued that the BLM violated federal law by stating air quality impacts from hundreds of new wells had already been evaluated and deemed benign in a previous study of Colorado’s Roan Plateau. (It’s worth noting this study bore little relevance to the 1,300 wells currently in question, some of which are more than 10 miles away from the study area and were not analyzed at all in the study; plus, a federal court found, in a separate case, that the Roan Plateau analysis also failed to take into account sufficient factors to stand on its own.)

There are nearly 200 gas wells on BLM owned land in Colorado's Roan Plateau. Photo: SkyTruth, flickr

The BLM’s Colorado River Valley Field Office will no longer use the inadequate study—an environmental impact statement conducted in 2006—and will additionally create an online tracking system for federal drilling permits.

What’s in the air?

As drilling activity grows in Colorado’s west-central side, air pollution levels are spiking tangentially. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and emissions of nitrogen oxides from natural gas wells, compressor stations and other equipment used at drilling sites concoct the perfect recipe for ozone pollution. The most concerning emission is ground-level ozone, a lung irritant that can trigger asthma attacks and exacerbate the conditions of people with emphysema, bronchitis and other respiratory conditions.

A report from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that the oil and gas industry is responsible for nearly half of all VOC emissions in the state.

Oil and gas were also responsible for 90 percent of Colorado’s air pollution enforcement cases in the first quarter of 2013. And of the 98 oil industry violations recorded during that quarter, only 73 resulted in fines.

A state stakeholders group composed of industry, community and environmental groups is studying whether new air quality regulations for the oil and gas industry are needed as development increases in eastern Colorado's Front Range. Meanwhile, no comprehensive study on the health risks presented by oil and gas emissions exists.

The stakeholders group plans to submit recommendations to Colorado's Air Quality Control Commission as early as this month, and new regulations could be approved and in effect by the end of the year.

Photo: World Learning, flickr

Responsible oil and gas development

If not developed responsibly, oil and gas extraction can harm air, water and ecosystems. Responsible development of oil and gas means:

  • Closing loopholes in federal laws that protect drinking water and surface water quality.
  • Requiring oil and gas companies to disclose chemicals used in drilling.
  • Protecting air quality from harmful emissions, including methane and other air pollutants, that accompany oil and gas development.
  • Ensuring sufficient federal agency staffing and resources for field monitoring and inspection as drilling plans are implemented.

At The Wilderness Society, we work to ensure responsible oil and gas development principles are followed by the government and the oil and gas companies that use public lands. In return, we all get clean air, clean water and vibrant ecosystems.