Oil well in NE Colorado. Photo courtesy of Anadarko.

 

Summer in Colorado means warm weather and sunny skies. It also means ozone pollution. The Denver metro area is again violating the federal ozone standard. Cars and power plants contribute to the problem, but the state has set its sights on a less obvious but growing source of pollution: the booming oil and gas industry on the Front Range. 

Most healthy people may never feel the impact from ozone pollution, but for those with asthma, like 70-year-old Rita Park, ozone can trigger a dangerous asthma attack. She checks the air quality forecasts like some people check the stock market.

“I check it every morning,” said Park. “It’s one of the first things I do, so I have an idea of what’s probably going to probably happen that day.”

One of Rita’s two Boston terriers sleeps peacefully at her feet. If there’s an ozone alert day, she is stuck playing with her dogs inside with the air conditioner on.  There were 38 of those days for the metro area last summer.  

“It’s unfortunate. I envy the people who don’t have a problem with it,” she said. “But, there isn’t too much I can do about it at this point in my life except exactly what I’m doing.”

Rita blames the pollution on the explosion in population along the Front Range, and she’s partly right. More cars on the road mean more ozone-causing chemicals, but cars are getting cleaner, so state regulators are focusing on another culprit. 

Forty miles northeast of Rita’s Federal Heights home Korby Bracken drives his company truck through Weld County past one oil well after another.  Bracken heads up Environmental Health and Safety for Anadarko Petroleum.  The company estimates the Wattenberg Field he's driving over could hold a billion barrels of oil and gas.  He calls it a "game changer" for his industry.

It’s also a game changer for regulators trying to control ozone pollution.  

Bracken stops at one of Anadarko’s newest wells. The drill rigs are long gone, and all that’s left are a few large oil storage tanks connected to a web of pipes and generators. The state says tanks like these vent hundreds of tons of ozone-causing chemicals into Front Range air every day.  Bracken, however, says his company doesn’t have as many tanks as it used to, because of new technology.

“I think what you find is, industry is very, very proactive on reducing emissions associated with oil and gas development,” he said. “It doesn’t take rules and regulations to do what’s right.”

These new, advanced systems are not widespread, however.  With more than 20,000 active wells in Weld County, and thousands more planned, state regulators must take action, according to Will Allison, director of the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division.

“They’re experiencing tremendous success and growth in this state, both as we speak and in the foreseeable future,” Allison said. “So we think it’s prudent to ensure that whatever we have on the books can adequately meet that growth.”

The state is crafting new emissions regulations now, and they could be in place by early next year.

Industry wants a delay. Companies like Anadarko note this would be the fifth set of new air pollution rules in nine years.  

“You know the industry and the state have made strides,” said Jeremy Nichols, Climate and Energy Program Director for WildEarth Guardians. “And yet we’re still violating our health standards, and so at the end of the day that’s the only metric that matters from our standpoint.”

Nichols points out it’s only going to get harder to meet federal health standards.  New studies on the danger of ozone mean the rules will likely keep getting tougher. 

Photo: Courtesy of Anadarko