Air quality and energy development


By Heather Hansen, Red Lodge Clearing House

It used to be that oil and gas development happened somewhere ‘out there’ in rural areas that most of us living in the highly-populated areas of the Rockies didn’t think much about. But now that tapping domestic fuel sources is being supported on all political levels, that development is encroaching on cities and suburbs, making it harder to ignore the potential health hazards.

When it comes to extractive industries, we often focus on protecting our water supply, which is obviously important but, as a result, there’s less of a focus on air quality. Given the push to step-up exploitation of these resources, and the health impacts that westerners are already suffering from air pollutants, the issue needs to be a more prominent part of the national conversation on energy development.

When it comes to air quality and oil and gas drilling operations, there are some major issues to consider—is our air healthy to breathe and what harm are we doing to our atmosphere by extracting oil and gas? Are federal and state emissions standards stringent enough?

Oil and gas operations have many stages—production and processing, transmission and storage, and distribution—and use a wide range of equipment, creating many occasions for conventional and toxic substances to make their escape. Some of those pollutants, including benzene, toluene, n-hexane and xylenes are known to cause cancer and blood, nervous system, reproductive and developmental disorders.

The business is also the single greatest industrial source of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which form ground-level ozone, a.k.a smog. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimated that the oil and gas industry emitted 2.2 million tons of VOCs in 2008. Ozone worsens asthma and increases the amount of emergency room visits, hospital admissions and deaths.

Citizens of Pinedale, Wyo., know all too well the price of the speedy development. Since drilling in the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah natural gas fields near their small town have gone gangbusters, they have not been breathing easy.

Residents are complaining of burning eyes and nosebleeds, and schools have been encouraged to keep kids inside during recess. Ozone levels have spiked above federal Clean Air Act thresholds dozens of times in the past several winters—above levels seen in the peak summer months in big cities like perennially smog-laden Los Angeles.

In response to citizens’ concerns, the state has formed a task force made up of people on the state, county and town levels of government, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS); (whose studies have shown that toxins are raising the acidity of some mountain lakes). It’s also created an on-line monitoring network where residents and health care providers can check the levels of harmful toxins before they decide to go for a bike ride. And yet, the BLM is analyzing proposals for 4,338 new natural gas wells in the area.

Five thousand residents of Battlement Mesa, Colo., who want to prevent Garfield County from becoming the next Pinedale, have joined a class-action suit, which alleges that a well pad near their community made them sick. The same company plans to drill another 200 or so wells nearby.

Two drafts of a health impact assessment have been done by the Colorado School of Public Health for Battlement Mesa. It said: “The key findings of our study are that health of the Battlement Mesa residents will most likely be affected by chemical exposures, accidents or emergencies resulting from industry operations and stress-related community changes. We found that chemical exposures will occur primarily through air emissions during well development activities.”

Late last year, state officials sought federal funding for an EPA study that would look at changes to air quality and public health from gas drilling area, but then backed away, leaving locals dumb-founded. Critics pointed to pressure from industry to dump the study. When asked if they played a part, the director of the Western Slope Oil and Gas Association told the Grand Junction Sentinel that, among gas drillers in Garfield County, “there was an unspoken uncomfortability” with the study which was too trained on “interpreting data for its public health implications.”

A balance between ‘pumping’ and ‘people’ could be aided by updating and enforcing national Clean Air Act standards. Changes to regulations that relate specifically to hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) discharged during gas and oil drilling and development are being finalized currently by the EPA, and the final guidelines should be released this April.

The EPA estimates that the new rules will cut smog-forming VOC emissions by nearly 25 percent across the oil and gas industry, including a nearly 95 percent reduction in VOCs emitted from new, and modified, hydraulically-fractured gas wells. (The oil and natural gas industry is also is a major source of methane—it accounts for 40 percent of all methane emissions in the U.S.—a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Cutting back on that couldn’t hurt, either.) 

Industry has been fighting the changes to our bygone air standards because upgrades to existing facilities, and the mandated use of the best emissions-reduction technologies available when constructing new facilities, means big bucks (retrofits alone will cost them roughly $754 million). But, argues the EPA, those costs will be more than offset by the capture of saleable gas that is now otherwise gone with the wind.

Some companies are to be commended for their proactive approach to protecting air quality by using the best technologies available, and by choosing their locations strategically, both in terms of topography and proximity to homes and schools, says Lance Astrella, a Colorado-based attorney who represents landowners concerned about the impacts of oil and gas operations on their health and environment. Astrella joined a group of experts on air quality and oil and gas development who got together recently in Denver to talk about the issues. (A video of their program is available on the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Natural Resources Law Center (NRLC) website.) Once upon a time oil and gas companies “weren’t interested in anything that wasn’t turning the drill bit to the right,” he said, but some are now taking a more holistic approach, which goes a long way toward reducing friction between industry and population. There’s tons more information on these “best management practices” (BMPs) on the NRLC’s BMP website.

Updating the Clean Air Act regulations (EPA is also currently working on reducing air toxics and soot from power plants, on limiting cross-state air pollution and reducing ozone limits) is particularly important as oil and gas development moves closer to population centers.

It may come as a surprise to many Americans that the air most of us breathe every day is unhealthy; federal thresholds for pollution are often exceeded. Last year, the EPA estimated that 26 states and the District of Columbia had areas of “nonattainment” for ozone. A look at recent ozone levels in Colorado paints no rosier picture.

Complying with new air quality standards also behooves the oil and gas industry. If a state has areas that do not meet air quality standards, it becomes difficult to legally permit new stationary sources of pollution, such as a gas well, in those areas. (This also true of federal agencies like the BLM and USFS.) Since that is a likely scenario on the Front Range, all existing causes of air pollution, including oil and gas sources, should modernize their facilities to minimize emissions before new sources are allowed to come on-line.

In addition to complying with updated standards, industry should step up and finance a more thorough and accurate air-monitoring network.

The Clean Air Act require each state to measure six so-called “criteria” pollutants, including particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and lead. The 4,000 or so monitoring stations in this network are called the State and Local Air Monitoring Stations (SLAMS). There’s also a subset of 1,080 monitors in the National Air Monitoring Network (NAMS), which are focused on urban and multi-source areas.  

It sounds like a lot but it’s not been nearly enough to keep pace with oil and gas development. In addition to having on-site monitors located where emissions are generally greatest during oil and gas operations—and having industry regularly report those measurements—it might put minds at ease to have industry-funded monitors at, say, every middle school in the country. That way we’re keeping an eye on some of our most vulnerable and valuable citizenry. The monitors could also be used as a learning tool for kids, not to mention a savvy public relations move by industry to engender confidence in “responsible drilling” in our communities.

If the monitors reveal that the emissions from nearby energy development are dissipating and do not pose a threat to our air quality (in terms of health, not greenhouse gases), that’s great. If not, they can act as a wake-up call for communities and regulators to investigate the source of the pollution and to work toward a solution. With an issue as complex and polarizing as oil and gas development in our neighborhoods, accurate information can be as liberating as it is indicting.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Heather Hansen is an environmental journalist working with the Red Lodge Clearinghouse /Natural Resources Law Center at CU Boulder, to help raise awareness of natural resource issues.

Images courtesy the Bureau of Land Management.