Clean air, hazy politics

Colorado air quality law pits coal against gas, rural against urban greens

  • Drilling in the Piceance Basin of western Colorado.

    Courtesy Conoco

Not long after the economy crashed, pulling down natural gas prices with it, hand-painted placards popped up in Delta County, Colo. "Why does Ritter hate oil and gas?" they demanded, angry about state drilling regulations enacted by Gov. Bill Ritter, a Democrat. Now, the hundreds of Delta County folks who rely on three big coal mines for their livelihoods may wish that Ritter hated natural gas a little more.

On April 19, Ritter signed the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act. The bipartisan-sponsored law -- intended to reduce air pollution along the state's populous Front Range -- requires the state's biggest utility, Xcel Energy, to slash nitrogen oxide emissions by as much as 80 percent by 2017. Although it stops short of requiring Xcel to convert some of its coal power to cleaner-burning natural gas, it strongly encourages such a trade-off. The bill is commonly known as the "coal-to-gas bill." Or, in Delta County, as the "anti-coal bill."

The legislation forged some odd alliances: Gasfield Republicans sponsored it with urban Democrats. But it has also opened up new rifts between the gas and coal industries, as well as between urban environmentalists and their rural counterparts, who worry that it will inspire another drilling boom in their backyards.

With carbon-constraining legislation on the national horizon, many greens see this bill as a template for other states; in a recent Denver Post op-ed, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. urged America to "follow Colorado's lead." Colorado's bill doesn't require reduced carbon emissions. Instead, it focuses on more immediate concerns: national regulations on regional haze and ozone. Under Obama, the Environmental Protection Agency has accelerated enforcement of the Clean Air Act, so that new regulations, in the words of Frank Praeger, Xcel's vice president for environmental policy, "are coming on like a freight train."

By January, states must submit their plans for dealing with the visibility-impairing regional haze caused by oxides released when fossil fuels are burned. In Colorado, haze has blotted out views in national parks and wilderness areas. Ozone is an even greater challenge. Created in part by emissions of nitrogen oxides, ozone poses particular health hazards to the young, the elderly and people with respiratory diseases. Colorado's northern Front Range, home to 3 million people, failed to meet the EPA standard of 84 parts per billion, let alone the new standard of 75 ppb. Now, the EPA expects to lower the standard again, this time to between 60 and 70 ppb.

Xcel might have responded to these regulations incrementally. But last year, company representatives, state officials, and environmental groups decided that the confluence of coming regulations created an opportunity for big-picture responses. "Those forces converged to sharpen everyone's focus," says Vickie Patton, deputy general counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. Ritter -- who had been politically hammered for his drilling regulations -- reached out to natural gas companies when crafting the legislation. That ensured the support of key Republican lawmakers from the Western Slope, who see it as a potential boon to the gas-producing regions they represent. To make the switch to natural gas -- which is notorious for price instability -- palatable to utilities, the legislation also includes a provision that allows utilities to enter into long-term contracts for gas. The bill swept through the Legislature and became law in little more than a month.

Coal industry officials were furious. Stuart Sanderson, executive director of the Colorado Mining Association, estimated that it would result in some 500 lost mining jobs in Colorado and Wyoming. Western Slope environmentalists, who dread the impacts of increased drilling, were equally unhappy. Gas production not only tears up the land, it creates its own air pollution, thanks to methane leaks, truck traffic and emissions from all the associated diesel engines. Ozone near rural gasfield towns such as Pinedale, Wyo., Vernal, Utah, and Farmington, N.M., has reached levels as high as those of Front Range urban areas. Josh Joswick of the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a group that monitors gas issues in the Four Corners area, says the bill deems rural air quality expendable for the sake of urban air quality. "None of the people who were at the bargaining table live in the gas patch," says Joswick.

Jim Martin, the director of the state's Department of Natural Resources and an architect of the new law, rejects such criticism. "I think this is a model for how to do this, because it shows you have to think about the pollutants together instead of one at a time," says Martin, who is soon to become the EPA's regional director. He contends that the state's new drilling regulations will protect rural Colorado. So does Elise Jones of the Colorado Environmental Coalition. "Nobody else around the country should mimic us unless they mimic that part of it (the regulations) as well," says Jones.

Until Xcel submits its plan and the Public Utility Commission rules on it, worries about increased drilling and lost coal-mining jobs remain hypothetical. Xcel could clean up its act by retrofitting the old plants in question -- Valmont in Boulder and Cherokee in Denver -- with pollution controls, or even retire them and buy electricity from other places. As for Gov. Ritter, he may have finally gotten over the stigma of hating oil and gas, but it hardly matters: He's not running for re-election.

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