Seeing taxpayer dollars go up in smoke on Pawnee National Grassland shows me why we need BLM’s wasted gas rule

Gas flare on Pawnee National Grassland

Mason Cummings

In the springtime, like some migratory birds, my family and I travel to the Great Plains. We go to get away from the snow, to see the first grasses emerging, to watch the birds build nests, to breathe.

Last spring, we went to Pawnee National Grassland, public lands east of Fort Collins, Colo. In addition to the expected birds and wide-open vistas, we were met with dozens of pump jacks hammering away, giant collection tanks standing in pools of water, and flares of natural gas burning off in flags of flame and smoke.

This oil and gas development, and the attendant pollution, is perfectly legal on public lands like the Pawnee National Grassland. The infrastructure and pumping aren’t going anywhere, but we could clean up the flaring if we choose.

Regulations recently created by Colorado are already helping, and a rule recently finalized by the Interior Department will also make a huge difference. Unfortunately, this rule is currently under threat by extremists in Congress.

Air Pollution Is a Serious Problem in Colorado

Gas is burned off because companies find that easier than capturing and selling it.  The extent of the flaring I witnessed in Pawnee National Grassland is not unique to Colorado—and certainly not unique to oil and gas development on our public lands.

Across public lands in Colorado, companies flare enough gas to heat 3,500 homes every year, or all the homes in Rifle, Colo. And the waste you can’t see, from leaks and venting, is even worse.

Oil and gas development contributes significantly to our poor air quality. And despite some of the most stringent regulations in the country, Colorado still has issues with natural gas waste and pollution.

In an area stretching from Denver to Fort Collins, and reaching east into the Plains, our air fails to meet the federal air quality standard for ozone, a pollutant that can cause difficulty breathing and even lung damage.

State Regulations Are a Good Start

In 2014, the state finalized a suite of new requirements to clean up our air by limiting the amount of wasted gas and minimizing the release of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—pollutants emitted along with natural gas that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone.

The new guidelines have inarguably proven to be successful. According to the Air Quality Control Commission, the number of leaking oil and gas facilities has dropped by 75 percent since Colorado’s rule went into effect.

A recent survey of Colorado operators found that most consider the rule to be effective in reducing emissions, that its benefits outweigh the costs to comply with it, and that it improves worker safety. 

Pollution Doesn’t Stop at State Borders

Yet, while Colorado has strong state requirements, neighboring states don’t, and pollution from those states is drifting into western Colorado. As the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel recently noted, “air quality doesn’t recognize state lines.”  

This state-line-crossing pollution, from New Mexico’s San Juan Basin and Utah’s Uinta Basin, is worsening air quality in southwest and northwest Colorado, pushing ozone to levels that are close to those considered to be a clear threat to human health.

EPA’s 8-hour ozone concentration data for the Rangeley and the Animas River Valley stations shows that southwest Colorado has exceeded attainment levels hundreds of times in recent years and has had more than 300 days of elevated ozone concentrations.

A similar situation exists in northwest Colorado, due to air pollution coming out of the Utah’s Uinta Basin.

National Standards Are Needed

That’s where Interior’s wasted gas rule comes in. Last year, the federal government took note of Colorado’s success and issued a new rule, through its Bureau of Land Management, to reduce venting, flaring, and leaks from oil and gas operations on public lands across the country.

By cutting wasted natural gas and the associated methane pollution in New Mexico and Utah, BLM’s wasted gas rule is a critical tool for assuring western Colorado meets national air quality standards.

This is especially important given the expected increase in oil and gas operations in the San Juan and Uinta Basins as petroleum prices recover. In both basins, oil and gas development occurs largely on federal and tribal land, increasing the potential benefits of the BLM wasted gas rule.

Colorado Will Suffer without BLM’s Rule

Some in Congress are considering repealing BLM’s rule. If this happens, and New Mexico and Utah don’t have to limit their waste, Colorado could need to further ratchet down emissions within its borders in order to meet clean air requirements.

That process could cost the state millions of dollars. And industry in Colorado could end up paying an estimated $60–90 million dollars in compliance costs—far more than the estimated costs of complying with the BLM rule.

This is particularly true in Colorado, where costs of complying with BLM’s rule will be minimal, as the rule includes a variance provision for states with regulations that meet or exceed the federal standard.

Congress Should Keep Its Hands off the Rule

The BLM wasted gas rule has many benefits for Colorado. The state should embrace the good work it has already done and look to protect its residents from the public health and fiscal impacts of out-of-state pollution.

It’s no surprise that 83 percent of Coloradans support keeping BLM’s wasted gas rule. They, like me, want to keep taxpayer dollars from going up in smoke in the future in places like the Pawnee National Grassland.

Our elected representatives must heed the will of the people and leave BLM’s wasted gas rule in place so it can do its job.