A flare stack at the Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City on Feb. 20, 2022. (Quentin Young/Colorado Newsline)
Oil and gas operations emit pollution that harms health and worsens the climate crisis. There neither is nor will there ever be such a thing as “zero-pollution” oil and gas operations. Emitting pollution is built into how this industry operates. However, there are existing technologies and practices that are tried and true for dramatically reducing how much harm oil and gas is causing.
Many of these things have been done over the last decade with residents, advocates and experts working with the Colorado Legislature and two different administrations to reign in polluters. But there remains one of the largest challenges to making sure industry is actually cutting pollution and reducing harm: accurately measuring and verifying emissions.
On this matter Colorado has not done a great job so far.
In 2021, to the disappointment of environmental justice advocates and other community groups, the state Air Quality Control Commission adopted a “greenhouse gas intensity program.” The program has two major problems. The first is simple. Reducing pollution “intensity” is not a guarantee that total emissions will go down. Intensity just requires an operator to not leak as large a percentage of pollution into the air per unit of production — in other words, pollute less of the total gas that has been extracted. But the company’s total pollution can still increase as they expand operations. And that’s a problem, because total pollution is the number that matters to climate and health.
The second issue is something the AQCC has a chance to fix in July: ensuring Coloradans can trust the data oil and gas companies provide to claim they’re reducing pollution.
The current proposal would defer proof of these reductions to the same companies and operators that would be found in violation if these reductions were not achieved. As someone whose whole job it is to hold industry accountable with a pollution finding camera, I can show you that oil and gas companies are failing to cut pollution and that they have an abysmal record of self-policing.
The oil and gas industry is a business concerned about one thing — profits, not people.
The state Air Pollution Control Division should work with stakeholders to put forward a stronger proposal that would shape how the APCD gets an accurate assessment of whether oil and gas companies are actually reducing greenhouse gases and health-harming pollution.
We need to use all the tools we have now in the tool box, including clear requirements to directly measure emissions. It is critical that the APCD review industry plans prior to implementation and meet key criteria for both direct measurement and monitoring.
Gov. Jared Polis has made a promise to address climate change and ozone pollution through robust rules. This is an opportunity to live up to that promise and demonstrate national leadership on the emerging issue of directly measuring emissions.
The oil and gas industry is a business concerned about one thing — profits, not people. It is the job of our state government to do more than merely trust that operators will do the right thing. Because the right thing for their business is often the worst thing for our health.
Our requests are reasonable and serve to better protect the people of Colorado.
Currently, oil and gas operators are not actually measuring their emissions, they are simply estimating. In order to know the real level of pollution that Coloradans are exposed to, operators must be required to directly measure greenhouse gas emissions at their facilities. The measurement technologies used should be proven by independent peer review to meet minimum detection standards and uphold industry best practices, and the data from these measurements should be provided in a way that it can be publicly and independently verified.
Earthworks has shown over and over again what happens when rules are designed to place trust in this industry. Most recently, we released a report showing how Coloradans are being misled by unproven and insufficient monitoring at sites across the Front Range. Over seven months we used our industry-standard optical gas imaging cameras to record a total of 22 pollution events at sites with fenceline monitors. When we compared our data to the monitors on site, we found that they had missed the pollution all 22 times.
These findings aren’t to dismiss monitoring technologies in general. They are an indictment of the thinking that oil and gas and oil and gas monitoring businesses can be trusted to design and implement monitoring programs without clear guidelines and proper oversight
This should be an easy one. Colorado cities continue to have some of the worst air quality in the country. The American Lung Association reports air quality in Colorado failed to improve, and in some cases is actively worsening. That is what Colorado gets when you let oil and gas do the job of protecting health and climate.
By finally requiring that oil and gas pollution be directly measured, we can hold those accountable who worsen our air and threaten our health and climate.
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