Leading the way on methane rules

To the editor,

Living in the Four Corners Methane Hotspot, hazardous pollution stemming from oil & gas wells is a daily part of our lives. As a physician, I have seen the impacts of methane emissions on our community and recognize their danger. The invisible greenhouse gas endangers our health while amplifying the effects of climate change – methane is 84 times more damaging to our atmosphere, in terms of heat-trapping, than carbon dioxide.

Methane clouds are usually associated with urban areas, but this one, the largest in the country at 2,500 square miles, is rural. With the dramatic increase in fracking and associated fugitive emissions, methane is now a rural health issue in the very communities that are least equipped to deal with its impacts.

Researchers at Colorado State have documented oil and gas industry-caused asthma attacks in children directly related to the number of fracking wells. Colorado ranks third in the nation with upwards of 32,000 such attacks annually. These statistics beg for robust, expanded public protections.

I applaud everyone who supported the effort to enact stronger, statewide methane regulations at the Air Quality Control Commission’s public hearing on methane, held Dec. 11 in Durango. More than 120 people filled the standing-room-only La Plata County Chamber, the overwhelming majority of whom favored increased leak detection and repair standards and more advanced strategies to reduce volatile organic compounds (ozone precursors) in our air. Fifty-four citizens testified in support of enhanced regulations, while only two people, both oil and gas industry employees, spoke in opposition.

It is interesting to me that the term “regulations” is sometimes used negatively by industry and by those who favor “small government.” The term “protections” can, in my opinion, be used instead when, as in this case, enforceable industry standards are necessary to protect public health and the environment.

It is imperative that the rules be applied statewide. New rules were introduced to the Front Range in 2017 as it was chronically out of compliance with ozone standards (as a direct result of fracking activity), yet the Western Slope – to which these rules do not currently apply – has been carved out and treated as a “sacrifice zone.”

In July 2017, I testified before the EPA about the proposed stay on the federal Methane Rule and told them about Colorado’s leadership in drafting common-sense, effective rules that not only curbed methane but also were accepted by industry.

In 2019, we witnessed devastating rollbacks to both the BLM and EPA federal methane rules. The current administration’s commitment to undermining climate policy further underscores the important role Colorado can continue to play as a leader on the national stage.

According to Keating Research, the oil and gas industry in Colorado favors our stricter rules that require them to find and fix methane leaks. These rules improve efficiency and worker safety while decreasing methane pollution, and the costs are minimal if not outweighed by the increased revenue from captured natural gas.

The methane rulemaking being considered by the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) is a no-nonsense, simple solution that holds oil & gas accountable to increased safety and inspection standards. To opt out of adopting such an easy fix to a proven threat makes no sense. It is also morally indefensible.

Moreover, with the upcoming rulemaking for SB 181 – the new Comprehensive Oil & Gas bill prioritizing public health, wildlife and the environment – it is time for the AQCC to extend regulations to include fracking activity that is done in proximity to homes and schools.

On Nov. 5, there was a benzene level spike next to Bella Romero Academy in Greeley. It was not announced until Nov. 25, and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has not been able to pinpoint the source despite the fact that the school is 1,200 feet from a producing well pad.

As a physician, I find it unacceptable that a school was exposed to high levels of a carcinogen and furthermore that the public was not informed for almost three weeks. I wonder how the parents of these students feel? Certainly they would like protections for their childrens’ health, as any of us would.

Thank you to the AQCC for taking the time to hold a methane hearing in Durango. We appreciate the Commissioners travelling to hear what Western Slope Coloradans have to say. Now is the time for simple, achievable reforms to address a rampant but preventable public health crisis in our state.

– Dr. Lauri Costello, Durango