Spoiler alert: there is a better way to monitor our air pollution than modeling it…
A rather alarming announcement was made recently by the top agency that monitors our air quality for the state:
Aside from the misleading title (“every Front Range vehicle”?), the article zeroed in on the foremost burning issue about air quality in the Front Range: what is causing our severe ozone pollution, and how can it be corrected?
Published January 5, 2023, by Colorado Public Radio, the article states that the Air Pollution Control Division (APCD) underestimated the projected pollution in 2023 that will be produced by the O&G industry by no small amount: about 100%, more or less. The extreme number resulted in some extreme reactions from actual people: the director of the APCD, with egg on his face, nonetheless put his best face forward, saying they will “make lemons out of this lemonade,” though I think he was either misquoted or meant that the other way around. “We will get a stronger implementation plan because of this,” he solemnly vowed.
The other extreme reaction, which swiftly came from the industry side, as if dancing together in rhythm, came from the Colorado Oil & Gas Association (COGA). Their director pounced on the news, questioning the accuracy of the data. “We need accuracy, not double-counting!” was the shrill accusation. Whatever…
The data correction was severe enough, however, to justify that the CDPHE, the state department within which the APCD is located, file a formal request to change their recommendation to the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC), the governor-appointed panel to which the CDPHE reports to about our air quality, and that they be allowed to modify their recommendations for their State Implementation Plan (SIP). These data are also required to be filed with the EPA, lending yet more weight to the issue.
Though somewhat difficult for my layman mind to decipher, the formal language in that request seems to say they underestimated emissions from the O&G industry, and they’re going to take another crack at it. The upshot is that the new estimates show the O&G industry producing significantly more GHG, and the ozone precursors, than vehicles…which is why COGA, the trade organization representing the O&G industry in Colorado, is so upset. No one likes being the bad guy.
However, the request did not discuss what might be done as a consequence; but that might be what the APCD director meant about making lemonade out of lemons. Or something like that….it’s all pretty vague and nebulous to the average layperson I should think, as it amounts to two traditionally opposed organizations pointing fingers and squabbling over numbers that none of the public really has access to anyway.
But there is a better way: it’s called direct measurement.
A model, of course, is simply an estimate of something. In this case, the APCD uses models to estimate our projected air pollution (as in, just how many severe ozone warning days are we going to get this summer?) The tempest-in-a-teacup squabbling is over the data that gets fed into the models; but, again, these data are themselves estimates, as none of these state agencies have the resources to go out and keep tabs on all the O&G operations throughout the state. In effect, the APCD is dependent on the industry to give them an honest answer about the number of their operations; which has been, of course, the long term strategy of the O&G industry in this county since the beginning: to be self-regulating, and to never allow even a hint of legislative encroachment into their dealings. Notwithstanding that the first blow to that attitude took the form of the US vs Standard Oil, when Teddy Roosevelt broke up the trusts that were dominating all major industries during the Gilded Age. Ever since, the O&G industry has waged legal and political battle to prevent regulation to affect their bottom line. And, as we have seen, the major oil companies have even been waging a disinformation campaign about the need to take action on climate change for decades…but I digress.
With the passage of SB-181 in Colorado in 2019, that battle has been slowly shifting more power to local authorities to regulate O&G operations in their jurisdictions, and thereby loosening the grip the industry previously held over centralized regulation such as by the COGCC. Now, COGA must not only contend with the COGCC, but with the CDPHE and APCD as well, which is a battlefront that COGA is not as adept at confronting. Because now the issue is the health and well being of people and their environmental quality. And the more that this health and well being can quantified by direct measurement, the sooner we can get to the bottom of the issue — and stop the pointless ping pong match of watching one side blaming the other over whose data is accurate.
The direct measurement of our air quality is what is needed; and the only technology that is capable of discriminating between the ozone precursors that originate from vehicles and those that originate from O&G activity — because they are distinctly different chemicals — are the monitors made by Boulder AIR (see bouldair.com)
Currently operating in eight sites scattered from Commerce City to Erie, in a combination of fixed and mobile stations, the data from this technology has no comparison to anything operated by the CDPHE. The ozone monitoring stations maintained by the state can only detect ozone after it is ozone; they are useless for detecting the sources of the ozone precursors. But this is precisely what is needed; because how in the world can an effective policy for reducing our ozone pollution be conducted if the real cause of the ozone is not identified?
The Larimer Alliance has been asking the Larimer County Commissioners and the Fort Collins City Council to please consider installing Boulder AIR monitoring stations here; to no avail so far. However, we are the prime target for the pollution from Weld County, where there are 18,000 plus active wells. The state ozone monitors that are here, one on the CSU main campus and one the west campus out LaPorte Street, have registered some of the highest ozone readings in the state, I’ve been told, which I would like to verify someday. This is due to the fact that the prevailing winds push the polluted air from Weld County up against the foothills to our west. It would be extremely helpful if we could get two such stations, one positioned east and west of Fort Collins, to verify the amount of pollution we are experiencing, and where it is coming from. Longmont has installed two monitors in their city; why can’t Fort Collins do the same?
To add insult to injury, the CDPHE has not even acknowledged the data that Boulder AIR has been collecting — ever since the first station went into operation at the Boulder Reservoir in 2015. These data are made available in near-real time on the Boulder AIR website, and is available for the state to use. But what does one find on the CDPHE website? Here’s a screenshot:
Does anything here tell you what is causing the ozone? Barely: the implication from the left panel is that you, the public, is the primary factor identified as the cause. YOU are the guilty party….indeed. This is partly true, since the precursors coming from vehicles are indeed caused by people and commercial vehicles out driving around; but there is no discussion of how the O&G industry is the other significant caues — only a picture of a pumpjack to indicate their contribution.
So this is what needs to change, at a minimum:
- the CDPHE needs to give equal time to the O&G industry’s role in our ozone pollution problem on their website and in their regulatory announcements
- the CDPHE & APCD need to acknowledge the data collected by Boulder AIR stations as superior to anything they have, and start to use it to identify the true sources of ozone precursors by direct measurement
If the COGCC, CDPHE & APCD were really to take the bull by the horns, and fully live up to the spirit of SB-181 — to protect the health and well being of people and the environment over fostering the O&G industry — then they would build an entire array of Boulder AIR monitoring stations all along the Front Range, from Weld County in the north to Pueblo in the south, and start to use their data to maximum effectiveness…and cease this petty squabbling with COGA over models and estimates that is simply not helping.