In case you didn’t know, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program does a lot of tweeting at the handle @ClimateWest. We often post threads on Twitter, which are a series of tweets that help us tell more robust stories. We thought we’d try to convert some of our threads to blog posts so folks who aren’t on Twitter (or just aren’t keen on Twitter) can also have a chance to read and enjoy.
With that said, enjoy our first of what are likely to be many Twitter threads transformed into what we hope are even more insightful blog posts. And if you’re into Twitter, be sure to follow us @ClimateWest. Scroll down to read more!
It’s been an amazing week of youth-led global climate strike actions!
Here in the American West, the scenes have been the same: people are overwhelmingly turning out to demand CLIMATE ACTION NOW!
In Denver, the scene was full of energy and inspiration as thousands took to downtown streets to demand Colorado Governor Jared Polis support the Green New Deal and a full transition from fossil fuels.
The climate strikes are far from over and in Colorado, this past week of action is culminating with a huge event tomorrow in the community Broomfield, where we expect to join many others in calling for an end to fracking.
Broomfield has been under siege by the oil and gas industry, with rigs and fracking operations encroaching into peoples’ backyards and open spaces. Together with local residents, we’ve teamed up to try to block the industry and defend the community. Unfortunately, Colorado’s oil and gas industry is relentlessly pushing to frack communities.
Tomorrow, we’ll be standing up with countless others to demand that we Stop Fracking Our Future!
WildEarth Guardians today put Suncor Energy on notice that it intends to file suit against the company over thousands of clean air violations at the company’s oil refinery in the Denver Metro Area.
Every year, Suncor’s refinery spews out more than 900,000 tons of toxic air pollution, including benzene, hydrogen cyanide, lead, hydrogen sulfide, and methane.
The refinery is also a major contributor to the Denver Metro Area’s brown cloud and summertime ground-level ozone problem. In 2019, high ozone levels were recorded throughout the Denver Metro Area.
The company’s own monitoring reports show the refinery violated its pollution limits at least 2,750 times between December 31, 2018 and June 30, 2019. The violations come amid growing controversy over the refinery and calls for it to shut down.
“The Suncor oil refinery is a clean air disaster, putting public health in the Denver Metro Area at extreme risk,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “We’ve had enough of the company’s blatant and ongoing air quality violations, it’s time to clean up this dirty refinery once and for all.”
Read the press release.
And while WildEarth Guardians is pushing back to put an end to this illegal practice, sadly, state air regulators are continuing to turn their backs on the problem, letting the fracking industry trounce Colorado’s clean air.
Worse, they’re turning their backs on the problem even as Colorado Governor Jared Polis is calling for tighter regulation of oil and gas companies and “aggressively” moving forward to curtail smog in the Denver Metro Area.
The 90-day Loophole
In case you missed the news last April, oil and gas companies are abusing a regulatory loophole in Colorado, constructing and operating massive production facilities before obtaining permits that actually limit harmful emissions.
Referred to as the “90-day loophole,” Colorado’s regulations actually allow companies to avoid submitting applications for legally required air pollution permits at oil and gas well sites for up to 90 days after beginning production.
The loophole effectively allows companies to avoid obtaining permits for months, sometimes even years, after drilling wells, fracking, and beginning to produce oil and gas.
As the Denver Post reported, hundreds of oil and gas well facilities are now operating in Colorado without permits. With no permits, there’s no assurance that companies are controlling their toxic emissions.
For people and communities near these oil and gas well sites, no permits means no ability to ensure companies are limiting harmful pollution. That means no ability to ensure companies are fully protecting public health and the environment.
In the words of Berthoud, Colorado resident Stephanie Nilsen, who lives next to Extraction Oil and Gas’s Trott facility, which is currently producing oil and gas from 18 wells without a permit, “It is just unfair. Air quality? They screwed me.”
Industry Abusing Loophole
The thing is, while there is a loophole in Colorado’s air quality regulations, it only applies to small sources of emissions.
In the Denver Metro Area, which is designated a “nonattainment area” because of violations of federal health limits on ground-level ozone (i.e., the key ingredient of smog), a small source is any facility with the potential to release less than 100 tons of smog forming volatile organic compound emissions.
If an oil and gas production facility has the potential to release more than 100 tons of volatile organic compounds, then that source is considered a “major source” and subject to stringent permitting requirements.
A major source permit requires companies meet very stringent emission limits, offset emissions to achieve a net reduction in pollution, and comply with other strict provisions. Put another way, a major source permit ensures companies achieve the highest level of clean air protection.
More importantly, if an oil and gas production facility is a major source, Colorado’s regulations don’t allow companies to use the 90-day loophole. Instead, if a facility is a major source, companies must obtain a major source permit before even beginning construction.
Unfortunately, oil and gas companies in Colorado have acted as if the 90-day loophole is a free pass to pollute for any production facility, no matter the level of emissions.
Even as fracking has boomed in the Denver Metro Area and pushed ground-level ozone to dangerous highs, industry asserts major sources of emissions don’t have to obtain permits before beginning construction and production.
They’ve gone so far as to argue the 90-day loophole provides an absolute exemption to major source permitting.
Colorado Regulator Complicity
Industry’s arguments are flat out wrong. Unfortunately, regulators with the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division have refused to push back and have even gone along with industry’s abuse of the 90-day loophole.
Over the years, they’ve looked the other way and allowed hundreds of oil and gas production facilities that are major sources of air pollution to avoid obtaining major source permits.
In doing so, they’ve foreclosed opportunities to reduce emissions and hold the fracking industry accountable to the best clean air standards.
Even in the Denver Metro Area, where emission cuts are critical for curbing the region’s smog, the Air Division has refused to enforce major source permitting requirements when it comes to fracking.
Coupled with ineffective regulations and seeming collusion with the oil and gas industry, it’s no wonder the region’s pollution woes are only worsening. This past spring, the American Lung Association reported that Denver’s ground-level ozone pollution is on the rise.
Ozone especially harms children, older adults and those with asthma and other lung diseases. When older adults or children with asthma breathe ozone-polluted air, too often they end up in the doctor’s office, the hospital or the emergency room.
– JoAnna Strother, Director of Advocacy, American Lung Association in Colorado
And even though earlier this year, the Air Pollution Control Division indicated it planned to investigate “if the (state’s) regulatory structure complies with the technical requirements of the Clean Air Act,” there’s seemingly been no changes to date.
In fact, the Air Division appears to be moving more aggressively than ever to let the oil and gas industry off the hook when it comes to major source permitting.
Right now, the Division is proposing to approve around 30 new air pollution permits for oil and gas production facilities that would let companies avoid major source permitting. Most of these facilities are located in the Denver Metro Area.
Under the proposed permits, companies like Noble Energy and Extraction Oil and Gas would be allowed to avoid major source permitting, even though the companies have already built major sources and started producing oil and gas.
WildEarth Guardians has opposed the Air Division’s proposed permits. In comments submitted last Friday, we objected to permits allowing Extraction Oil and Gas, Noble Energy, SRC Energy, and other companies to avoid major source permitting requirements.
That the Division has proposed to approve these permits seems a clear indication that industry’s abuse of the 90-day loophole remains condoned by regulators.
New Hope or Business as Usual?
To be certain, Colorado Governor Jared Polis has ushered in a new era of oil and gas regulation that prioritizes public health and the environment. In April, he signed Senate Bill 19-181 into law, which directs Colorado air regulators to adopt new rules limiting harmful emissions from fracking operations.
However, the Air Pollution Control Division seems to be moving slowly and uncertainly, at best, to meet Senate Bill 181’s mandate.
It was only last Friday, July 5, that the Air Division announced its first public meeting regarding a “Potential Fall 2019 Air Quality Rulemaking.”
That meeting isn’t scheduled to take place until July 29. And while the Division is asking for public comment, it’s unclear exactly what the public is commenting on at this point.
In May, WildEarth Guardians, together with partners at Colorado Rising, 350 Colorado, and Mothers Out Front, submitted concrete expectations for new rules under Senate Bill 181.
Among other things, we called on the Division to eliminate the 90-day loophole, adopt an aggressive oil and gas industry emission offset program, and hold fracking companies accountable to the most stringent of air pollution controls. We have yet to receive a response to this letter.
However, given the lack of substance and clarity so far around the process, there’s reason to be concerned the Air Division may not be on track to meet these basic expectations.
Most importantly, with the Division continuing allowing oil and gas companies to avoid major source permitting, there’s reason to be concerned clean air is taking a backseat to the fracking industry in Colorado.
In the Denver Metro Area, we estimate there are currently over 50 fracking facilities operating without legally required major source permits.
The map below shows where these facilities are located. The bigger the circle, the higher the level of volatile organic compound emissions. Zoom in or click to see a larger version of the map to learn more.
In spite of this, the Air Division is letting the companies behind these facilities avoid major source permitting.
Instead, they’re obtaining weaker permits that don’t ensure stringent pollution controls, don’t offset emissions, and don’t achieve the high level of clean air protection required for major sources.
For the Denver Metro Area, this means more smog pollution and more danger to public health. This certainly is not the “aggressive” clean air action that Governor Polis intended.
We Need a Change
As part of our Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement Initiative, we’re taking aim at industry’s illegal abuse of the 90-day loophole.
In a Clean Air Act citizen enforcement lawsuit filed in May, we targeted seven companies, including Extraction Oil and Gas, Noble Energy, Crestone Peak Resources, and others for violating Colorado clean air laws by failing to obtain legally required major source permits.
This federal case is unprecedented in the American West. Never before has a citizen suit been filed against the oil and gas industry in this region. However, never before have we faced such a widespread failure of the fracking industry to comply with our clean air laws.
While our legal case promises to secure the accountability we need for our clean air and health, the reality is, we need Colorado regulators on board with safeguarding air quality in Denver and beyond.
We know the Governor genuinely wants to see clean air restored in Colorado. Citing “outrage” over delay, earlier this year, he stepped up to keep the Denver Metro Area’s smog clean up on track. In statements, he’s made abundantly clear his support for bold action to reduce air pollution and protect public health.
We have to do everything in our power right here at home to make our air cleaner and our people healthier as soon as we possibly can.
– Colorado Governor Jared Polis
With the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division continuing to let industry abuse the 90-day loophole, it’s urgent the Governor step up to set things right.
That’s why we’ve reached out to our members and supporters to stand with us in calling on Governor Polis to ensure clean air and health comes first in Colorado. Hundreds of Coloradans have so far signed the petition, which we intend to deliver to the Governor next week.
But the Governor also needs to hear directly from Coloradans. Call him or send an e-mail today, click here for contact information >>
So long as the oil and gas industry is allowed to abuse the 90-day loophole and pollute without permits, clean air and public health will suffer in Colorado. It’s up to the Governor to change this and give Coloradans the breath of fresh air they deserve.
Earlier this year, WildEarth Guardians launched its Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement Initiative, a campaign to defend communities and our climate from fracking in and around the Denver Metro Area.
The campaign has been in high gear since February and this month, we kicked it into overdrive.
In a groundbreaking lawsuit filed in federal court on May 3, we challenged seven oil and gas companies over ongoing clean air violations at 15 production facilities, all of which are located in Weld County north of Denver.
To our knowledge, it’s the first citizen suit under the Clean Air Act ever filed against the oil and gas industry in the Rocky Mountain West. And it promises big results for clean air and the climate.
The lead outlaw in the case includes Extraction Oil and Gas, a notorious fracking company that has rankled Front Range communities for its residential drilling practices.
The company is developing more than 80 oil and gas wells and related infrastructure in the City and County of Broomfield, a move that has drawn intense local condemnation and legal action by WildEarth Guardians.
Other lawbreakers include Noble Energy, Crestone Peak Resources, Great Western Oil and Gas, PDC Energy, Bonanza Creek Energy, and Mallard Exploration.
The suit takes on the fracking industry’s abuse of a loophole in Colorado’s clean air regulations.
That loophole allows small oil and gas production facilities to avoid submitting pollution permit applications for up to 90 days after first beginning production.
Unfortunately, over the years the oil and gas industry has expanded the loophole and argued that it also applies to the largest production facilities. Sadly, under former Colorado Governor, John Hickenlooper, an ardent supporter of the oil and gas industry who once drank fracking fluid to underscore his allegiance , that argument gained traction.
Now industry routinely constructs massive multi-well fracking facilities that have the potential to emit thousands of tons of toxic air pollution without ever obtaining permits. In some cases, companies may operate well sites for years without ever having a permit in hand.
We’ve mapped out at least 50 oil and gas facilities in the Denver Metro Area that aren’t subject to the 90-day loophole, yet are currently spewing out massive amounts of unchecked air pollution with out a permit. Check out the map, which we’re still building out, here >>
And it underscores that, despite popular rhetoric, Colorado doesn’t really have the strongest oil and gas air quality rules in the nation.
In fact, the 90-day loophole, coupled with a complete lack of effective inspections and completely toothless enforcement, has basically created an environment where the oil and gas industry can pollute as much as it wants, when it wants, wherever it wants, and with no consequences.
As a former inspector for the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division put it:
It’s cheating, plain and simple.
– Former Colorado Air Pollution Control Division Inspector, Jeremy Murtaugh
We aim to change that.
Leveraging the citizen suit provisions of the federal Clean Air Act, we’re exercising our right to enforce violations of our clean air laws and secure long overdue accountability that is long overdue. That includes seeking maximum penalties, which we estimate likely exceed $1 billion.
Given that, by our estimate, the companies enjoyed economic benefits of more than $400 million, this is a more than appropriate deterrent.
And our track record of success on Clean Air Act enforcement cases gives us reason to believe we’ll win this case, too.
Over the years, we’ve won every Clean Air Act enforcement case we’ve brought, either by securing a successful court ruling, settling on favorable terms, or compelling polluter to do the right thing.
Our Clean Air Act enforcement cases have shut down coal-fired power plants, forced power plants to meet stringent air toxic limits, and secured resources for energy efficiency and renewable projects in low income communities as coal-fired power plants retire.
As for as our Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement initiative, we’re not just suing industry head on, we’re also challenging illegal permits, including several recent permits proposed for ConocoPhillips, Noble Energy, Crestone Peak Resources, and other companies.
Crestone is currently under fire for proposing to develop dozens of new oil and gas wells in and around Erie, Colorado.
We’re also continuing to challenge federal fracking approvals. In a letter last week, we pushed back against U.S. Bureau of Land Management plans to auction off lands for fracking near Brighton, Colorado.
All told, these sales of lands by the Bureau could open the door for 500 new oil and gas wells in the region.
Finally, we’re also weighing in to ensure that new rules adopted under recently enacted Senate Bill 181 ensure the fracking industry is held to the highest standards of accountability when it comes to clean air and public health.
Senate Bill 181, which became law in April, requires the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission to adopt new rules to rein in oil and gas industry air pollution.
Together with our allies at Colorado Rising 350 Colorado, Mothers Out Front Colorado, and Frack Free Colorado, we called on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, which oversees the Air Quality Control Commission, to meet a number of expectations and recommendations to ensure strong rules and accountability to public health, particularly along Colorado’s Front Range.
Most importantly, we called for rules that ensure if the Denver Metro-North Front Range region fails to meet federal health standards limiting ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog, that no new air pollution permits will be issued to the oil and gas industry.
We believe SB 181 provides enormous opportunities for the Department, Division, and Commission to get a complete handle on air pollution from the oil and gas industry, to make meaningful progress in protecting our clean air, and to ensure that public health is fully safeguarded.
– WildEarth Guardians, Colorado Rising, 350 Colorado, Frack Free Colorado, Mothers Out Front
With the Denver Metro Area’s smog problem getting worse and Colorado in general facing increasing strains on its iconic clean air, now is not the time for Colorado Governor Jared Polis and his agencies to give the oil and gas industry a break.
Along Colorado’s Front Range and in the rest of the state, we need tough action to defend our clean air. And in holding the oil and gas industry accountable to clean air, we can make meaningful steps toward safeguarding our climate.
In Colorado and beyond, our clean air challenges and climate crisis go hand in hand because they’re both fueled by fossil fuels. Our strategy is to rein in air pollution and start making some serious progress for the climate.
So far, we’re on track. Stay tuned for more updates around our Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement Initiative.
Guardians and Colorado Rising, a western advocacy group enforcing clean air standards, sent letters signed by many community groups to Colorado Governor Jared Polis, the Colorado Department of Public Health, and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission today, notifying them of the need to pause oil and gas permitting as they work quickly to implement newly enacted SB 181.
SB 181, also known as “Protect Public Welfare Oil and Gas Operations” puts public health, safety, welfare, the environment, and wildlife resources above unmitigated oil and gas production, overhauling the Conservation Commission and requiring the Colorado Department of Public Health to adopt new rules on air pollution and emissions. In the letters, Guardians and allies detail the need for careful consideration during the oil and gas permitting process to honor SB 181’s mandates.
“Passage of SB 181 gave us hope that our health, safety and welfare finally mattered. But the process is like a runaway train,” said Susan Noble, a resident of Commerce City, Colo. “We’re scared the health of our community will be sacrificed.”
Read the press release.
Guardians has filed suit against seven oil and gas companies in order to halt clean air violations at 15 fracking facilities along Colorado’s Front Range. The companies are developing wells and putting them into production before obtaining the necessary pollution permits.
The Front Range, including the Denver metropolitan area, is struggling with ground-level ozone pollution—a key ingredient of smog—and has been declared in violation of federal smog limits. Ramped-up fracking in the area is the cause of these higher ozone levels. By evading the permitting process, the seven companies Guardians targets in this suit are worsening the problem.
Drilling before obtaining permits has become industry practice, putting communities, homes, farms, schools, and businesses at risk. Dozens of oil and gas well facilities throughout the Front Range are currently operating without legally required permits; hopefully, this lawsuit will put an end to these unscrupulous dealings.
Read the press release.
WildEarth Guardians this week called on the Colorado Governor, Attorney General, and Health Department Director to start enforcing clean air laws and order a halt to oil and gas development in Broomfield, Colorado.
The call comes as Extraction Oil and Gas has started drilling the first of more than 80 new oil and gas wells in the community at a multi-well fracking facility called the Interchange B Pad. According to officials with Broomfield, drilling began on April 19 at Interchange B and is expected to continue until late May.
Last fall, Broomfield gave the green light for Extraction to unleash this damage on the community. Although Guardians and Residents Rights, a group of local residents, filed suit to block the approval in state court, the judge unfortunately has yet to rule on our case.
Extraction has since ravaged Broomfield, clearing wells pads, ripping up open space to lay pipelines, building new roads, and now moving in drilling rigs and other heavy equipment. The community has literally been turned into an industrial sacrifice zone.
In the meantime, as part of our Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement Initiative, we’ve uncovered that oil and gas companies are routinely constructing their well facilities and fracking before securing legally required air pollution permits.
Earlier this month, the Denver Post published a damning exposé around industry’s practice of polluting without permits, highlighting how rampant the illegal practice is and how much it’s jeopardizing clean air along Colorado’s Front Range.
That story highlighted how Extraction’s facilities in particular are posing tremendous threats to public health and Coloradans’ quality of life because of the company’s law breaking.
In Broomfield, Extraction is engaging in the same dangerous development, constructing and now drilling wells at the Interchange B Pad without obtaining permits legally required by the Clean Air Act.
This has to stop.
We urge you to take action to halt this illegal development and assure full protection of air quality and public health.
– WildEarth Guardians
With reports mounting that Colorado air regulators have for years failed to enforce, inspect, and actually hold the oil and gas industry accountable, our hope is that the new Governor and Attorney General turn the tide on fracking and start putting public health and clean air first.
And there is good reason to be hopeful. Governor Polis’ new Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Director, Jill Hunsaker Ryan, has made clear that her goal is swift action to improve air quality and defend public health.
In our state, we cherish the environment and expect clean air to breathe. It’s time for us to move as swiftly as possible to get back in good standing with federal [clean air] standards.
– Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment Director, Jill Hunsaker Ryan
For Broomfield residents, the situation is urgent. However, for all communities along Colorado’s Front Range, the need for swift clean air action is dire.
WildEarth Guardians is stepping up to defend clean air and hold the oil and gas industry accountable to public health everywhere along Colorado’s Front Range. We hope Governor Polis and his Administration move toward the same goal.
They should start by ordering Extraction Oil and Gas to stop drilling in Broomfield.
Guardians filed a lawsuit against the Environmental Protection Agency in an attempt to protect Coloradans from hazardous ground-level ozone, a key ingredient in smog.
High ozone levels have been harming the health of Coloradans for years. The oil and gas industry is one of the largest sources of smog-forming pollution, and ramped up fracking has pushed ozone to unhealthy highs. EPA designated the Denver area as in “nonattainment” (not meeting) with its 2008 ozone standards seven years ago, but clean air violations have continued to pile up. EPA was required to determine that the Denver Metro Area is failing to meet air quality standards months ago, but has illegally delayed that determination, thereby delaying taking any action for Coloradans’ clean air.
“The sooner [EPA] takes action, the sooner Coloradans will be able to breathe clean air,” said Guardians Staff Attorney Daniel Timmons.
Read the press release.
WildEarth Guardians’ efforts to hold the oil and gas industry accountable to clean air and public health along Colorado’s Front Range is kicking into high gear with several recent wins for air quality and public health.
As we’ve reported, this year we launched our Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement initiative, a concerted campaign to confront the oil and gas industry’s air pollution in the Denver Metro Area and surrounding communities.
Our aim is to expose the true clean air costs of oil and gas, turn the tide against fracking, and start keeping fossil fuels in the ground where they belong. We’re doing that in four ways:
- Confronting Federal Fracking Approvals
- Forcing Environmental Protection Agency Sanctions
- Securing Clean Air Justice in the Courts
- Challenging Illegal Air Pollution Permits
So far, we’re getting off to a great start. In fact, just iIn the past week, we’ve made some major strides in our campaign.
First, we helped defeat an industry-led effort to derail smog clean up along Colorado’s Front Range.
Earlier this year, industry had mounted campaign to pressure state air regulators to blame the region’s smog pollution on China and other international sources of air pollution. If successful, their effort could have derailed U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sanctions that are needed to guarantee clean up of the region’s air pollution.
In detailed comments to the Air Quality Control Commission, we exposed how industry’s scheme was not legally allowed or justified. Ultimately, at the urging of Colorado Governor Jared Polis, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission rejected industry’s requests.
That’s great news for the region’s clean air and health.
Second, we overturned the Trump Administration’s approval of dozens of fracking wells in the Denver Metro Area.
Confronting federal fracking approvals is a key component of our Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement Initiative. Throughout the Front Range, the federal government has a role in approving extensive oil and gas development because of public lands and publicly owned minerals in the region.
Last week, we scored a major victory in this area. Climate and Energy Program Attorney Becca Fischer overturned the U.S. Bureau of Land Management’s approval of 38 new oil and gas wells that would have fracked under the City of Brighton, which is north of Denver
In response to an appeal of the drilling, the Bureau of Land Management held its officials illegally ignored comments from WildEarth Guardians and set aside the fracking decisions.
That’s more great news for the region’s clean air and health.
Finally, we mobilized major support for clean air justice.
And last week, U.S. Representative Diana DeGette, who represents Colorado’s 1st Congressional District, called on Colorado Governor Polis to investigate our claims and ensure the oil and gas industry is fully complying with clean air laws along the Front Range.
I write today to express my concern regarding allegations that several oil and gas companies are routinely violating federal law by drilling in Colorado without first obtaining the required Clean Air Act permits.
– U.S. Representative Diana Degette
That’s some major progress for clean air and public health in Colorado. Most importantly, that’s some major progress for reining in the oil and gas industry, defending communities from fracking, and safeguarding our climate.
Stay tuned for more as our Colorado Front Range Oil and Gas Clean Air Enforcement Initiative continues to gain momentum!