EPA’s methane rollbacks will adversely affect the health of all Coloradans

Denver air is bad. It’s about to get worse.

Smoke obscures views of the Rocky Mountains from Downtown Denver on Aug. 13, 2020. The smoke came from the Pine Gulch fire near Grand Junction and the Grizzly Creek fire outside Glenwood Springs. (Andy Bosselman/Colorado Newsline)

By Patrick Hager

Have you noticed Colorado’s air quality in recent weeks? Many of us have been forced to shelter indoors, away from the haze of fires burning in both Colorado and California that are obscuring Denver’s skies.

The smog has gotten so thick, the mountains aren’t visible, to the point that it is disorienting, compromising Denver’s sense of place. The air quality here was already subpar before the rash of wildfires we are now experiencing. Denver is known for some of the worst air quality in the United States; ranking No. 10 out of 229 metropolitan areas for ozone pollution. Multiple lung-irritating pollutants have spiked in recent weeks to levels 28% above federal health limits — very unhealthy air quality. And it is about to get worse.

In mid-August, the Trump administration finalized its proposal to eliminate methane protections from the EPA’s New Source Performance Standards. While I am somewhat encouraged by the D.C. Circuit’s pausing of these standards’ rollback on Sep. 17, we are in no way in the clear yet. By gutting the methane safeguards that have been contributing to Colorado’s efforts for cleaner, safer and more breathable air, the rollback will worsen air pollution and intensify climate change.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists and New York Times, methane is a more potent greenhouse gas, by 80 times, than CO2 over a 20-year period. Methane is well established as an emission released during oil and gas production, and can be a major contributor to many health issues; it exacerbates respiratory illnesses, affects lung development in children, increases risk of cancer, and causes immune system damage as well as neurological, reproductive and developmental problems. Rolling back these standards is a serious setback for having safe, breathable air.

The EPA standards prevented more than 300 million metric tons of CO2 pollution between 2016 and 2019. This standards rollback flies in the face of overwhelming support among Coloradans and the broader public, and even big oil and gas companies like Shell and BP, for strong federal rules to curb methane pollution from oil and gas development. Since wildfire smoke observes no state boundaries, to achieve better air quality we must compensate by reducing emissions from the big oil and gas sectors.

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler has a responsibility to protect public health and safety by holding the oil and gas industry accountable for polluting our air and fueling climate change. This rollback undermines EPA’s own mission by threatening public health. Further, Black and Brown communities are already disproportionately exposed to air pollution from oil and gas development at much higher rates than white communities while at the same time are already suffering the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This move is a thinly veiled attempt to limit EPA oversight of the oil and gas industry at the expense of Coloradans’ health and safety at a time when these protections are needed more than ever. In the absence of federal leadership, Colorado’s leaders must step up to the plate to hold oil and gas companies accountable to curb dangerous methane pollution.

Patrick Hager lives in Aurora.