Front Range oil and gas emissions are the targets of this planned legislation from state Democrats

Weld County Oil And Gas Drilling Extraction One Way
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Oil pump jacks and related infrastructure exist in close proximity to homes and epic scenery in Weld County, Colorado, on Oct. 25, 2019.

Colorado lawmakers are set to propose new legislation to better understand and regulate the oil and gas industry's contribution to ozone pollution along the Front Range.

The announcement came during an event at the state Capitol on Tuesday arranged by the Colorado Public Interest Research Group and Colorado Mountain Mamas to call for new policies to address the persistent pollution problem. The groups timed the event to take place 100 days before the start of the next ozone season. 

At the press conference, state Rep. Jennifer Bacon, a Democrat from Denver, said one potential solution is to give air regulators more oversight over new oil and gas drilling. 

Together with fellow Democratic state Rep. Jenny Willford of Northglenn, she plans to introduce a bill in the coming weeks that would require the state to estimate the impact of every proposed drilling plan — and only approve projects that won't exacerbate local air pollution problems.

"We have to be sure that before they operate, we understand what kind of impact they're going to have on our air quality," Bacon said.

The upcoming proposal would be the latest attempt to tackle one of the region's toughest air quality issues.

Ground-level ozone is a well-studied lung irritant associated with heart attacks, childhood asthma and premature death. It blankets the Front Range each summer when two categories of pollutants — nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons — react in the atmosphere amid heat and sunlight. 

While a majority of the pollution blows in from outside Colorado's borders or occurs due to natural sources, state data suggests local emissions sources push concentrations above permissible levels set by the federal government. The World Health Organization has recommended even lower health standards for ground-level ozone.

New data suggests oil and gas operations play the largest role of any local emissions source along the Front Range. Last year, Colorado air regulators revealed an error had led them to vastly underestimate the impact of drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Their revised modeling showed those two activities alone will likely add more critical ozone-causing pollutants than every car and truck along the Front Range. 

Oil and gas groups dispute the new estimates, saying they're based on a flawed analysis of industry data.

What isn't up for debate are ozone readings at local monitors. The results have drawn increased scrutiny from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which reclassified the Front Range as a "severe" ozone violator last year. The American Lung Association also ranks Metro Denver as the seventh worst U.S. city for ground-level ozone pollution.

The upcoming legislation will likely meet fierce resistance from the oil and gas industry. 

A version of a similar bill never managed to reach the floor of the state House or Senate last year. The Denver Business Journal reported former Democratic state Rep. Tracey Bernett dropped her efforts after oil and gas representatives claimed the plan could devastate an industry already facing strict regulations. 

Oil and gas representatives appear ready to sound the alarm again this year. Lynn Granger, the midwest and mountain west director of the American Petroleum Institute, said the bill sponsors had yet to share a draft of the legislation, but they floated key concepts at a meeting on Monday. 

"As described, the bill would functionally end new permitting for natural gas and oil development in Colorado's highest-producing basin by 2024," Granger said. "The proposal should be a non-starter for Coloradans who have spent the last year suffering from high energy prices at home and at the pump."

Those warnings echo a bitter fight over oil and gas regulations in 2019. During the legislative session that year, Colorado Democrats proposed SB-181, which gave local governments far larger role in the permitting process and redirected state oil and gas regulators to protect health and safety. 

Gov. Polis signed the bill despite the opposition campaign. 

Under the current system, a company planning to drill new wells must obtain a construction permit from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The panel approved 4,663 new well permits between 2019 and 2022, which means the state has continued to greenlight drilling under the process reformed by SB-181.

A company works on a parallel track to obtain an air quality permit from the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division. Federal law requires those regulators to run computer models to determine the potential impact on local air quality.

Colorado has landed in hot water for failing to complete those modeling efforts in the past. In a report last year, the EPA confirmed claims from whistleblowers who said the division had issued permits without a proper evaluation.

Rep. Bacon said her legislation would clarify that the state must complete those estimates. In addition, it would consolidate the process to attain a drilling permit and an air quality permit. By forcing more coordination between regulators, she added, many companies could find new "efficiencies."

Bacon nevertheless said the state must also find a way to account for smaller sources of air pollution, which combine to create  "cumulative impacts" that put the health of Colorado residents at risk.

"We will have to put our foot down and say what is contributing to our poor air quality," Bacon said. "It is our lack of accounting from what's happening from these minor sources."