In a federal court settlement, BLM agrees to do more air quality studies on Colorado Front Range gas drilling

A Jan. 17 court-ordered settlement on gas drilling air quality impacts covers all of eastern Colorado.

Federal agency will do full emissions inventory, evaluate ozone impacts in permitting process

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Front Range residents will get better information about air quality impacts from gas drilling, as the Bureau of Land Management has agreed to do more studies before permitting additional energy development. The studies will include a full inventory of emissions anticipated during the next 20 years.

The agreement came as part of a court-ordered settlement of a lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians.

“This is a great news for clean air along the Front Range and beyond, which is increasingly at risk because of ramped up drilling and fracking,” said WildEarth Guardians climate and energy program director Jeremy Nichols. “The BLM has basically agreed to look before it leaps, which is a common sense approach to keeping people in Colorado safe from air pollution.”

WildEarth Guardians’ lawsuit challenged the Bureau of Land Management’s 2009 decision to issue 12 oil and gas leases covering 3,680 acres in Weld and Morgan Counties north of Denver. The suit challenged the BLM’s failure to address the impacts of drilling and fracking to smog levels along the Front Range of Colorado in accordance with the Clean Air Act, as well the agency’s failure to check other air pollution impacts in the region under federal environmental review laws.

Before allowing those operations to proceed, the BLM agreed to do an environmental assessment that at least covers ozone issues and incorporates data from a comprehensive emissions inventory.

Under the order the BLM has agreed to: “prepare an emissions inventory for oil and gas operations for the Royal Gorge Field Office Planning Area, which includes Weld and Morgan Counties and the Denver Metro/North Front Range 8-Hour Ozone Nonattainment Area. The inventory will include current and reasonably foreseeable emissions of specified pollutants, including ozone precursors, for a 20 year timeframe.”

The Front Range of Colorado, including the nine county region from Douglas County north to Larimer and Weld Counties, is out of compliance with federal limits on ground-level ozone pollution, also known as smog.

The area was designated as “nonattainment” in 2007. Ozone is a poisonous gas that can trigger asthma attacks and damage lungs. It forms when pollution from tailpipes, smokestacks, and oil and gas drilling operations reacts with sunlight.

Drilling in and around Weld County is a significant factor in the region’s smog pollution.  Fracking and production continue to release more ozone forming compounds than cars and trucks along the Front Range, according to WildEarth Guardians.

Although invisible to the naked eye, these compounds are released from tanks, pipelines, and other equipment associated with oil and gas operations (see video showing what these emissions look like through infrared cameras).  And while Colorado has adopted some rules to limit pollution from oil and gas development, a number of sources fall outside the rules.

The settlement, which was signed on January 17 by U.S. District Court Judge John Kane in Denver, commits the BLM to completing a comprehensive inventory of air emissions from oil and gas operations in the Royal Gorge Field Office, which encompasses all of eastern Colorado, including the Front Range.

The BLM also agreed to prepare a full air quality analysis before allowing any drilling on the 12 leases that were sued over.  nd to comply with the Clean Air Act, the BLM agreed to ensure that emissions from drilling and fracking would not worsen the Front Range’s smog problem.

“Our position from the start has been that if the BLM can’t protect air quality from drilling and fracking and keep people safe, then it shouldn’t be allowed,” said Nichols.  “This agreement puts the breaks on drilling a handful of leases, but we hope that it spurs the BLM to exercise some common sense restraint, rather than signing off on unchecked oil and gas development.”

The settlement ensures that the BLM starts to take responsibility for limiting the clean air impacts of oil and gas drilling and fracking throughout the Royal Gorge Field Office. Advancements in fracking technologies and drilling techniques have allowed oil and gas companies to tap the region’s shale formations, bringing a new drilling rush to the area.

Weld County faces the most drilling pressure, but other counties in the Field Office, including Yuma, Las Animas, Phillips, Morgan, and Lincoln, are also in the oil and gas industry’s sights.  And even other Front Range counties, including Boulder, Arapahoe, Broomfield, Adams, and even Larimer, are also facing increased pressure (see Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission drilling statistics).

Although the BLM is often not the primary surface owner in the Field Office, the agency owns and manages thousands of acres of minerals.  Where those federal minerals underlay privately owned lands, the agency is still obligated under federal law to minimize, or outright prohibit, surface impacts, including air quality impacts.


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