Experts Discuss Challenges and Successes to Cleaning up Air Quality

Karen Dike of Sustainable Resilient Longmont poses audience questions to the panel that included Mike Foote, Joe Salazar, and Detlev Helmig.

Three experts who have been instrumental in regulating and monitoring air quality in Colorado spoke to a Longmont audience on Thursday about the current state of what  people on the Front Range are breathing, and what people can further do to make additional improvements.

Sponsored by Sustainable Resilient Longmont and Longmont Sunrise Movement, two groups that have organized for improving the environment, the event hosted Colorado state Senator Mike Foote, Executive Director of Colorado Rising Joe Salazar, also a former member of the Colorado Assembly, and Associate Research Professor at the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research at the University of Colorado Detlev Helmig, who has been monitoring air quality locally including at Boulder Reservoir for the past three years.

Helmig, who has been taking data from instruments posted at the Longmont airport to the west, and to the east Union Reservoir, allows for comparing the air quality of that entering Longmont, with that leaving the city.  Measurements taken compared volatile organic compounds (VOCs) levels of benzene, ethane, propane, and others at local sites, and compared them to baseline levels taken at areas such as from the mountains above Boulder.  These VOCs are known to be released from the local oil and gas industry.  Ethane is especially an oil and gas tracer according to Helmig.

Data taken in 2014, a few months ago, and as recently as a few hours before the meeting were presented.  The 2014 data taken over an expanded area led Helmig to conclude, “There’s definintely a tendency that levels continue to go up and further increase as you move from the foothills further into the plains.”

While 25,000 fracking wells that exist east of Boulder County would likely account for the increased levels of VOCs, Helmig pointed to particular “pollution events” that moved levels “up to 100 times higher than what’s coming into the region.”

One such event happened just Tuesday where an “air transport event” was responsible for a level of methane that Helmig had never seen before in three years of recording data at Boulder Reservoir for example.  At Boulder Reservoir, the highest recorded level of methane was measured at 2500 parts per billion, but on Tuesday in Longmont the methane level reached over 5000 parts per billion.  In Boulder, the same air transport event pushed Boulder Reservoir’s level to 2400 and Longmont airport’s level to 2500.

Helmig considers Boulder County the prime spot in the country for concentration of pollution measuring sites.  Broomfield will soon install two sites that will measure pollution, one in the western part of the city, and one at the center of five fracking wells.

Senator Mike Foote was a primary sponsor of Senate Bill 181 that implemented groundbreaking changes to how Colorado regulates the oil and gas industry.  Years-in-the-making, the bill gutted how the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission –  that oversees the oil and gas industry – operates, gave municipalities more power to improve their air quality, and fine tuned former regulations where loopholes existed.  Foote considers the bills a “template” for other states to follow, “We’re the only state that’s done that.”

Foote repeatedly stressed the value of community input that led to the passing of SB 181 along with House Bill 19-1261 that set statewide emissions reduction goals of 50% by 2030 and Senate Bill 19-236 that reauthorized the Public Utilities Commission (PUC).  With the appointments by Governor Polis to the PUC, Foote pointed out that the organization is now staffed with those more perceptive to renewable energy.

But the road to passing renewable energy bills did not come easily to the capitol.  Foote reminisced back to 2013 when he and Representative Joe Salazar attempted to pass oil and gas bills and were laughed at by colleagues.  After introducing about a dozen bills, the two were only successful at gaining a few additional oil and gas operations inspectors.  The next year, Salazar’s bill to attempt to prevent earthquakes from gas injection wells – where water, chemicals, and sand are forcefully thrust below the ground – also failed, “Even Oklahoma has had to admit that their earthquakes were caused by injection wells.”

Foote credited community organizing for the recent successes in passing stricter regulations on the oil and gas industry, “We were able to build community.   We got people down to capitol.”

He encouraged the audience to vote in the “right” people and pointed to Broomfield as an example of what community organizing can accomplish.  In 2017, the health and safety of Broomfield residents was added to the city charter, and with the most recent election changed the composition of city council from majority-friendly to the oil and gas industry, to majority-friendly to health and safety of residents.

Former state Representative Joe Salazar also viewed the failure of past legislation as wins because the issues were put on the radar of legislatures and oil and gas regulation moved its way from a non-issue to a lead bill in the 2019 legislative session.

Salazars challenge to the audience:  to focus on local governments.

“Local governments are now being told that [they] can be more strict.  [SB 181] doesn’t say that they can’t have a moratorium or a ban.”  On Tuesday, Colorado Rising (the group that Salazar represents) filed a lawsuit asking the court to rule that Longmont’s 2012 voter -approved fracking ban is no longer in violation of state law.  The issue went all the way to the Colorado Supreme Court which ruled that Longmont’s ban on fracking was in “operational conflict” with state law thus voiding the voters’ wishes, “With respect to the Longmont ban, we’re not going to let [the Supreme Court ruling] stand.  This is your government.  When you say this is what you want with your government, judges, government, council, you’re taking your government back.  You guys did it.”

Salazar confirmed to the audience that Colorado Rising is confronting all possible avenues and features of the oil and gas industry until communities are safe from the pollution and the burden of costly cleanup.  The actual cost of cleanup has been estimated at $270,000, well over the $100,000 that has been assessed to fracking companies to secure as a bond to the state.

And the COGCC is not immune from the challenge.  Salazar described a history of past practices by the commission regarding spacing or forced pooling (where mineral owners are forced to lease their mineral rights).

“You get notice that they’re going to have a hearing on spacing or pooling and you get notice.  You have 30 days to file a protest, you file a protest, and then they immediately dismiss your protest.”

Colorado Rising has filed six ballot initiatives this week, five dealing with setbacks and one dealing with the cleanup bond issue.

The talk drew audience members from Weld County who have been fighting fracking since the first well was being negotiated in Windsor.

“We in Windsor, we’ve been stymied in our efforts because we are so pro-oil, in our council, everybody is,” Carol Heinkel has lived in Windsor for 40 years, “Elections are coming up.  I’m not hopeful for elections in Windsor because they’re strongly allied.  Maybe someday we’ll get that changed.  We do have the capability if we have the energy to do a ban.”

Heinkel pointed to political positions that will change hands in the upcoming election, “Our mayor also wants to run for county commissioner and she is very pro-oil.”  Windsor’s mayor is Kristie Melendez, “She has said, that she wanted to make sure that Windsor is a safe haven for oil and gas, which I found appalling.” Heinkel added that people who have spoken out against fracking at area meetings have been escorted out by police.

“I’ve been fighting since 2008 against one of the first fracking sites at Laku Lake,” said Diane West of Windsor, “I’ve been worried about the health effects, and I’ve learned so much more over time.”

West referenced a 2017 fracking site explosion that happened near Windsor after which readings for fracking VOCs skyrocketed, “The air toxins like benzene and ethyl benzene and all of the ones that are earmarked for oil and gas, that it’s caused by oil and gas, they were off the charts.  They could trace back to our area.  So it was making it all the way to show off the charts in Boulder Reservoir even though the event happened in Windsor.”

“So it’s encouraging to have people like Mike Foote and Joe Salazar who is an avid advocate for our health and safety.  And that is why I made the effort to drive all the way to Longmont because these people are speaking up for the normal people of Colorado that have no say in anything.”

West expressed regret that water was not discussed more because “We can live without oil, but you can’t live without water.  Like France has banned fracking in their whole country.”

France banned fracking in 2011 and upheld the ban in 2012 although the country relies heavily on nuclear power.

“Once our water’s ruined, we may have to have it shipped over from France.”

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