All posts by Rick Casey

the BOULDERAIR tour rocked!

Thanks to efforts by Councilwomen Laurie Anderson of Broomfield, and to Andrew Forkes-Gudmunson of LOGIC, an idea for a tour became a reality last week. On short notice, a select crowd of community leaders, including some of from the Larimer Alliance, were asked if they would like to attend a tour of one of BoulderAIR‘s monitoring stations. Would a few of us be interested in attending the tour, at noon on Thursday, September 23, 2021?

You betcha! was the response. The organizers were trying to limit it to about a half dozen, but nearly twice that number showed up. People were from Broomfield, Fort Collins, and Loveland, including past Colorado legislator Mike Foote, who helped craft the historic SB-181 legislation.

The monitoring station from a distance

When we arrived at the Soaring Eagle Park in Broomfield, Dr Helmig, the CEO of BoulderAIR, was just finishing up a tour provided to members of the Aurora city government; so it was a busy tour day!

The previous tour group almost done

The Soaring Eagle Park in Broomfield is located in the Anthem housing development, which does have expansive views:

Looking north, where Longs Peak is visible in the distance

Unfortunately, this upscale housing development is also home to fracked wells, some just a few hundred feet from homes, which were drilled in the years prior to SB-181. Hence the strong interest by local government in getting such monitoring stations installed.

A stable tower anchors the mobile trailer that houses all the equipment, and provides the means of attaching the various sensors that record environmental conditions and air pollution:

Dr. Helmig explaining the various sensors

The trailer contains sophisticated equipment, worth tens of thousands of dollars, and analyzes the air samples in real time, and automatically publishing the data on the BoulderAIR website in less than 15 minutes. The equipment is under constant maintenance and calibration; though largely automated, the entire system nonetheless needs a good deal of tender loving care to keep it in good operating condition.

The big silver tubes connect to an air conditioner, which prevents the trailer from getting too hot inside

The presentation wrapped up with an explanation of the key piece of equipment: a gas chromatograph. The heart of the machine is this delicate part:

The orange coil is the heart of a gas chromatograph: a 50 meter long glass tube, barely a couple of millimeters wide, through which the gas sample travels

On the same site is another sampling station, an AJAX system, which is not part of BoulderAIR, but which Broomfield contracted to build prior to contracting with BoulderAIR:

An AJAX station, with an air sampling canister

The Soaring Eagle BoulderAIR station has the most complete set of sensors of any of the seven stations that they operate. It went into operation in April 2020, and has helped Broomfield identify several local pollutants, even ones not associated with oil and gas. There are two new fracked wells that went in within the past two years within about a mile radius; a third well’s drilling rig was just visible about a mile to the southeast from this site, which is being drilled now. So the city has ample reason for wanting a monitoring station in this area.

Partial screenshot from the BoulderAIR website showing the live data from the Soaring Eagle station

To see the graphs for yourself, browse to www.bouldair.com/broomfield.htm

(Best viewed on a laptop or desktop screen)

One of the many interesting facts that Dr. Helmig mentioned during the tour was that this station measured 40 days of non-compliance for ozone this past summer; the recommended threshold for maintaining human health set by the EPA is FOUR DAYS — in other words, this location in Broomfield was 10 TIMES THE RECOMMENDED SAFE THRESHOLD FOR SURFACE OZONE THIS SUMMER! It would be interesting indeed to study the data from those days and find out what percentage of the VOCs causing the ozone were from oil and gas sources versus VOCs coming from vehicular pollution. Why hasn’t this been done, one might wonder?

Well, apparently the state of Colorado is not interested in pursuing that question; and Broomfield does not have the expertise in-house to answer it either. But if BoulderAIR had the resources to hire more qualified staff, they could answer the question for us. But, as Dr. Helmig joked, you can’t just put out a Craigslist ad for this kind of job! Up until now, he has been so busy keeping the monitors going, his small team has not been able to pursue such questions; that might change in the future if BoulderAIR could hire more staff.

As far as anyone knows, these monitoring stations are unique: there are simply no other monitoring stations in the US, or in the world for that matter, that can match their analytical capability. Given the extreme amounts of ozone and, on occasion when accidents happen at oil and gas sites, dangerous amounts of other toxic chemicals that go wafting over the landscape, it would seem a no-brainer that more of these stations need to get built, AND more powerful regulations put in place to allow the state and local governments to shut down chronic pollution sources.

The Larimer Alliance is engaging with the city and county departments to support the installation of one or more such monitoring stations in the county, and support the important work of BoulderAIR. We will keep you posted of developments!

Greenhouse gas intensity targets: the new greenwashing?

In a recent article in the Colorado Sun (A new rule to slash oil and gas emissions.., Sept 15, 2021), a new rule adopted by the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) is described by the Polis administration as a way to dramatically cut the GHG emissions by the oil & gas industry.

The rule is based on something that is interestingly called “intensity targets”, which apparently simply means making an effort to reduce your GHG emissions, and then reporting how much GHG your company emits…and hopefully it goes down over time. There are reduction targets for 2025, 2030 and 2050, which have been announced for all the various kinds of O&G activities, from fracking to drilling to transport.

The calculation of the emissions by the companies has been developed by the AQCC, and are intended to be an incentive-based, rather than command-and-control-based, kind of regulation. In other words, the regulator does not specifically instruct the polluter how they are doing to reduce their pollution by using a specific technology; but rather suggests a reduction target, and leaves it up the polluter to reduce their pollution by any means they want.

The proposal has, unsurprisingly, been welcomed by the O&G industry. The industry has always preferred to be self-regulating, which was largely the approach taken by the Colorado legislature in the past, up until the passage of SB-181 in April 2019. That historic legislation, which took away the industry’s ability to self-regulate by specifically instructing the COGCC to stop allowing it, was a watershed in the state approach to regulating the O&G industry.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise, at least to this writer, why the AQCC wants to reverse course, and restore self-regulation to the industry that is primarily complicit in causing global climate change. The proposed rules carry no penalties if a company fails to meet its target, and there are no enforceable measures in the new rule. The big assumption is that each individual O&G operator will do their level best to meet their “intensity target”, i.e. a lower level of GHG emissions.

Gee, what could possibly go wrong?

Also unsurprisingly, the environmental community (i.e. Wildearth Guardians, the EDF, at this point) has denounced the new rule as a mistake which will one day have to be corrected. They make the undeniable point that climate change is happening now, and we no longer have the time to try out untested regulatory policies that could take years to evaluate.

The one benefit of the program, from what I can tell, is that it is the first time that a regulation is taking a wholistic approach, and forcing O&G operators to consider their entire operation, from start to finish, to see where best they can best reduce their emissions to meet their reduction targets. The “intensity” aspect of the regulation comes from the required overall calculation of total CO2-equivalent produced per unit of product processed. (The units used will vary by type of company and what it is producing or processing.) As some O&G operations can involved a complex series of operations, the calculation of their overall “GHG intensity” will be a complex process in itself.

However, if history is any guide, the lack of specific enforceable actions, and especially the lack of any penalty for not meeting their targets, does not auger glad tidings for the outcome of this rule. As the saying goes, the road to hell is littered with good intentions — and while this rule may have the best of intentions, I’m afraid it will just be allowing the fossil fuel companies off the hook, once again, and pushing us all closer to a hellish world where the climate veers more and more out of any sort of equilibrium, creating more and more misery with each passing year.