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Public Health and Environmental Coalition Calls for Immediate Smog Clean up on Colorado’s Western Slope

January 29, 2014
Jeremy Nichols (303) 437-7663
In This Release
Climate + Energy  
Denver—Unchecked oil and gas development has pushed smog levels so high in western Colorado that federal health limits are being violated, a clean air crisis that prompted a coalition of groups today to call on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to officially make a “dirty air” designation to spur a much-needed clean up.

“The clean air on the Western Slope is being sacrificed for the oil and gas industry,” said Rodger Steen with Western Colorado Congress. “We need safeguards that reverse this deterioration and the steady march toward regional ozone nonattainment. Our economy and quality of life on the Western Slope depend on keeping our air clean.”

In a petition to the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, the coalition of Colorado and Utah health and environmental groups called for a declaration that the Uinta Basin region of northwestern Colorado and northeastern Utah be designated a “nonattainment” area, or an area that is failing to meet federal air standards.

This 10,000 square mile region has for several years now experienced smog levels higher than Los Angeles and Houston, largely due to oil and gas drilling and fracking. A “nonattinment” designation will spur a mandatory clean up of the region’s air pollution.

The petition comes as air monitoring in Rangely, Colorado (located in Rio Blanco County) and other parts of the region have recorded exceptionally high levels of ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog.

Formed when air pollution from smokestacks, tailpipes, and oil and gas drilling react with sunlight, ozone is a poisonous gas that can trigger asthma attacks, scar lungs, and even cause premature death. Current federal health standards restrict ozone concentrations in the air to no more than 0.075 parts per million.

In 2013, ozone levels in Rangely soared to 0.106 parts per million, 40% higher than levels considered healthy. The region is now officially violating federal health standards, the first time ever that a western Colorado area has violated smog limits.

“Big city air pollution in western Colorado is an alarming sign of the toll that unchecked oil and gas development is taking on our health,” said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians’ Climate and Energy Program Director. “What’s happening in the Uinta Basin should be a wake up call for everyone that the oil and gas industry needs to clean up its act throughout Colorado and the American West.”

In the Uinta Basin region, oil and gas drilling and fracking is the primary source of the pollution that forms ozone. Two key pollutants—volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides—are most responsible for forming ozone. Volatile organic compounds are a byproduct of oil and gas production and nitrogen oxides are a byproduct of engine combustion.

Oil and gas is responsible for 98% of all volatile organic compound emissions in the Uinta Basin and 67% of all nitrogen oxide emissions, more than all other sources (including cars and trucks) combined. In Rio Blanco County, Colorado, oil and gas operations release 97% of all volatile organic compounds and 83% of all nitrogen oxide emissions.

The total amount of volatile organic compounds released by oil and gas in Rio Blanco County, 26,022 tons annually, is twice as much as all the volatile organic compounds released by cars and trucks in Denver County.

The petition comes as Colorado regulators are weighing whether to adopt stronger rules to limit air pollution from oil and gas drilling and fracking statewide. The coalition of groups petitioning the Environmental Protection Agency are urging the state to adopt clean air rules for oil and gas in western Colorado that are as strong as those for oil and gas in the Denver metro area.

“Western Colorado deserves the same clean air protections as Denver,” said Bruce Baizel, Energy Program Director for Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project. “With oil and gas taking a toll on our clean air across the state, we need a one-size fits all solution.”

Industry has opposed the state’s effort to strengthen clean air rules for western Colorado, claiming that there are no air pollution problems on the west slope.

The coalition has called on the Environmental Protection Agency to respond to the petition within 90 days. In the meantime, Colorado regulators have scheduled a rulemaking hearing starting on Feb. 21 to decide whether to adopt stronger clean air rules for the oil and gas industry.

Under the Clean Air Act, the Environmental Protection Agency is required to designate any area violating federal air quality standards as “nonattainment.” This designation then imposes a requirement upon states to develop and implement a clean up plan. If the violations persist, states face sanctions from the Environmental Protection Agency and are required to adopt more stringent emission reduction requirements.

For More Information Contact:
Rodger Steen, Western Colorado Congress member and Steamboat Springs resident with 10 years of experience in air quality compliance in the oil and gas industry, (303) 807-8024
Bruce Baizel, Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project, (970) 259-335