I watched the Colorado Sun’s “Clearing Colorado Air” livestream on May 18, 2023. (You can watch the entire recording on YouTube: The Colorado Sun’s Clearing Colorado’s Air) It was somewhat excruciating to watch as I’ve been following this issue closely for several years, and was keenly aware of what was gettinng left out of the conversations. Due to the opposing roles that the three participants play in the current political landscape, perhaps this was somewhat to be expected; but it also compelled me to comment about what I thought was not said.
Certainly, the Colorado Sun is to be commended for organizing and hosting such a webinar with top experts on the serious issue of surface level ozone pollution in the Front Range. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the average person will likely to be left confused on this serious issue; because if the Colorado Sun was hoping to ‘clear the air’ on this issue by having the participants explain it, that for sure didn’t happen.
If you want the full-on excruciating experience of suffering through the entire hour of the panelists getting questioned by the Colorado Sun reporter Michael Booth, be my guest. If you prefer to spare yourself that pain, but are curious what it is like, you can read my detailed description below the divider below.
But to spare you that wearisome exercise, I will summarize my impression of what the webinar was about and what it accomplished – or not.
This was a commendable effort by the Colorado Sun to provide a public service about the valid concern of surface level ozone pollution. This is a serious issue, particularly in the summer months, which afflicts the Front Range from Wellington down to Pueblo. This region has been out of EPA compliance on this since the early 2000’s, I believe, perhaps since 2004. (I’m not an expert but that’s my recollection.) This is being caused by two sources: traffic exhaust from ICE (internal combustion engine) vehicles and O&G operations (the drilling, production and transport of fossil fuels). The air pollution from these two sources, called ozone precursors, combine with sunlight to produce ozone (O3), which is highly irritating to your lungs. It’s been described like ‘lung sunburn’. Individuals vary in their sensitivity to this, but it affects the younger and the older populations more, and of course anyone that already has any lung condition.
The Air Pollution Control Division (APCD) is the department within the Colorado Department of Health and the Environment (CDPHE) that issues the permits to the O&G industry to pollute the air, euphemistically referred to as “emissions.” Such permits always pertain to some fixed location. The other source of pollution, vehicular traffic, is regulated by the state through inspection stations that test your car periodically.
Emission tests from car inspections is a mundane program that everyone accepts; it runs like a top. The emssions permit program run by the APCD, particularly ever since fracking took off in the state around 2010, has been coming under increasing scrutiny from the environmental community, who rightly see it as a key regulator of the O&G industry, along with the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC). The COGCC issues the drilling permits; the APCD issues the air pollution permits.
In 2019, these two entirely separate parts of the state regulatory apparatus were thrown together by a new state law, SB-181, which gave them a new mandate: instead of “fostering the O&G industry”, they were to do an about face, and instead of protecting the industry they were to start protecting what the industry had been harming: people and the environment. As you might imagine, getting entrenched regulatory operations to change their missions 180 degrees in the opposite direction has not been without its difficulties; “challenging” would be an understatement.
Indeed, the cultural lag inherent in such transitions has been a major frustration for the environmental community — which was on full display in this webinar. The environmental side of the issue was represented by Patricia Garcia-Nelson, an advocate for Colorado Green Latinos and the Cultivando community. By the end of the webinar, her frustration with the APCD and the O&G industry was clear. Despite the intent of SB-181 to protect people and the environment, Ms Garcia-Nelson can tell you it is not working for her community.
There are more specific questions which this webinar failed to answer. For me, a key question is how is the state going to address the ozone problem when they do not know which of the two source causes is more at fault: vehicles or O&G operations. To be able to measure that, you need to have direct measurement of the air, with enough measurements to get a representative sample of the area in question. And you need the equipment that can distinguish between these two sources, which have different chemical signatures.
The only company in operation that has that kind of technology is Boulder A.I.R. (which stands for Atmosphere Innovation Research; see their website at bouldair.com). The CDPHE operates monitors that can detect ozone, particulates and, in a few stations, nitrous oxide. I believe a list of these stations is found on their website at: https://www.colorado.gov/airquality/site_description.aspx
There is a world of difference between these two monitoring technologies. Basically the Boulder AIR monitors are far superior in the range of chemicals they can measure, their precision and accuracy, the capture of ambient environmental data (i.e. wind direction, humidity and temperature), and, last but not least, the transparency of how easy it is for the public to see the data — in real time, no less.
Boulder AIR has been in operation since 2015, when Boulder County contracted for the first station at Boulder Reservoir. Since then, seven more stations have been put into operation by various municipalities scattered from Commerce City to Longmont (see a combined map here). They have all been independently contracted and paid for out of municipal funds. And why? Because these communities are concerned enough about air quality to want to know what is exactly in their air. And these stations provide a ton of data, which you can view in real time at bouldair.com. These are truly continuous monitoring stations, operating 24×7, with instruments sensitive enough to detect minute quantities of pollution. And when these continuous measurements are combined with wind vector data and atmospheric models, “plume maps” can be constructed that can show the direction and intensity level of the pollution. These are powerful tools, and could be used to help identify and isolate the real sources of our ozone pollution. Moreover, the company was founded by a world class, published atmospheric scientist who has been careful that the data collection and processing is kept to the highest scientific standards. The data are of such quality that it can be used in lawsuits (though that has not happened…yet).
So what if these different cities know what pollution is in their air, and when, and in what intensity, so what? What can they do about it? The answer is: not much.
Moreover, neither the CDPHE nor the APCD seem to care. Incredible as it may seem, these agencies will not accept the data collected by Boulder AIR stations as valid. Although these data sets, the oldest now approaching eight years of continuous, reliable data collection, could be a gold mine of information for tackling this elusive problem, the state is acting like an ostrich with its head in the sand, pretending it’s not there. And when it comes to cities trying to push back against state agencies, the law is not on their side; statutory law gives all power to states to rule over cities like obedient slaves; they have almost no legal say in such matters. Everything is at the discretion of the state agencies; and whoever is in the political driver’s seat that oversees them.
So it is up to us to protest to our state representatives to get them to see to reason. There was some slight progress made in that direction in the most recent legislative session, where some attention is being given to impacted communities, and funds were allocated to impacted communities suffering from environmental injustice. This is how the Cultivando Project (see below) was able to procure funding for its own Boulder AIR stations.
But note the irony here: the state has provided Cultivando with the funds to purchase a tool to collect data to prove how much they are being poisoned — yet they won’t accept the data as valid. Can you believe that? It seems to defy reality that an agency dedicated to public health refuses to recognize how that public health is being damaged, proven by data collected in plain sight. Just how long can this suspension of reality be upheld?
That remains to be seen. So if you want the full dose of suspended reality described in detail, read on…
*****************[ main article begins here ]**************
The participants were Michael Ogletree, director of the Air Pollution Control Division (APCD) within the CDPHE (Colorado Division of Public Health and the Envronment); Patricia Garcia-Nelson, the Just Transition advocate for Colorado Green Latinos, who is intimately familiar with the pollution around the Suncor plant in Commerce City, and the Cultivando Project that was created to address this; and Jennifer Beaver, with the law firm Williams, Weese, Pebble & Ferguson, who was representing the American Petroleum Institute. (I’ll refer to Ms Garcia-Nelson below as Ms G-N for brevity.) With three such disparate entities on the issue of ozone air pollution, differences of opinion were guaranteed; clarification of the issues certainly was not.
Not that the host from the Colorado Sun who directed the webinar, Michael Booth, didn’t try; he certainly did. But even the subtitle of the webinar — “Talking about ozone, pollution and the effectiveness of regulation” — was enough to make one’s stomach churn with anxiety. As anyone who has been paying attention to this issue over the last decade knows, the activist community is beyond outrage over the slow pace of change at getting to the bottom of the ozone pollution problem. So, my expectations were pretty low to begin with. But my expectations dropped a notch lower as I listened to the bright and cheerful introductions by the host describe how the “bold steps” that Colorado has “already taken” to clear up our dirty air….empty words we have all heard before.
Mr Ogletree’s introductory remarks were positive but less than impressive: he mentioned how he has was able to introduce air monitors in schools where there have been such asthma problems. Commendable, certainly; will that help to alleviate the cause of the asthma? Not a bit. Strike one.
The first question to Ogletree asked what the APCD is doing in the short term and long term about the ‘severe’ ozone non-compliance that the EPA applied to the nine county region that makes up the Front Range. Ogletree answered “Zero emission trucks….and school buses.” Somehow the electrification of buses and trucks is not the first thing that comes to mind when I consider the ozone problem…strike two for Mr. Olgetree.
Ogletree next explained that the APCD will adjust their modeling guidelines, adopting ‘lower thresholds’ to reduce sulfur and nitrogen dioxide in ‘permitting regions’; and working with Polis to get more funding at the APCD, and hire more staff. This is happening because of the EPA’s reclassification of the Front Range region, which went to ‘serious’ in 2019, then to ‘severe’ in 2022. Tweaking models conjures up the epitome of regulatory excuses for doing nothing when they want to appear they are doing something. How much more modeling do you even need when your ozone levels are already ‘severe’? This is not seeing the forest for the trees, I’m afraid.
The host next asked Ogletree what can people do to prepare themselves for the ozone season, which began May 1? The APCD does publish ozone warnings the day before it is suppose to be bad. He thinks the EPA has a website for warnings too, but, uhhh….he couldn’t remember the name of it. This did not inspire confidence, when the director of the top regulatory agency doesn’t remember the websites that are supposed to help you. Strike three for Mr. Ogletree.
I also have serious doubts that ‘hiring more staff’ at a broken agency suffering from massive regulatory capture is going to fix the problem. There is a distinct lack of vision, candor and transparency at the APCD about what is causing the ozone precursors, and what it is going to take to reduce them. But I cannot place all the blame on the APCD alone; there are other political players involved in this political dance.
Next, host Booth turned to Patricia Garcia-Nelson, asking what happens day by day in her family and neighborhood, what got here started in her activism, and what does she think the ‘health department’ (i.e. the APCD) should be doing about it?
Very polite with her acknowledgements, Ms G-N launched into several recent first hand experiences of family illness or disorders from the air pollution in their neighborhood caused by air pollution in the area, from nose bleeds to asthma to repeated hospital visits. She couldn’t believe that more wells had been permitted to drill, when their pollution was already so bad. And that despite prolonged appeals to ‘regulatory agencies’ they have not offered any relief. (Tactfully, she did not name them, with the director of the APCD across the zoom room from her.)
Next, host Booth asked Ms G-N if she was concerned if regulation of the O&G industry might ‘hurt the economy’ where she lives in Weld County, since so many people there are employed in O&G? She replied she is concerned, and has family employed in the industry, but that she’s more concerned about their health than economics. She personally knows O&G workers who got so sick they had to quit. She asked about the long range plan for these O&G workers: it’s a finite resource, so what is going to happen when it runs out? We need to be proactive, not reactive, about this. Sounds sensible to me: Ms G-N scored a base run, to my mind, in this game.
She did not stop there. This industry has always whined about regulation ‘killing their industry’; but they continue to make ‘record breaking profits’, so how are they getting ‘killed’ exactly? I think she has a point. She closed out with comments on how the O&G industry always seems to have the upper hand over her community when it comes to dealing with regulations and the AQCD, and “the industry always seems to get loopholes.” This sentiment I could well understand; advance to another base, Ms. G-N.
Finally, the host turned his attention to Ms. Jennifer Beaver, representing the American Petroleum Institute, well known for its monstrous bias in favor of full-on climate change denial or other callous indifference to human suffering….not that I’m prejudiced or anything…but host Booth tossed Ms. Beaver a kind of open-ended softball of a question, based on comments by Ms. G-N. Taking the part of the question that dealt with monitoring, she asserted that in 2020 the industry adopted ‘with the backing of the AQCC…all on its own…continuous emissions monitoring…’ which I found puzzling. Her definition of continuous monitoring must be different than mine. Next, she calmly explained that industry has to do a ‘benchmark measurement…before drilling and fracking…then six months of measurements after that..and if triggers are hit…take corrective action…’ This has been reported to the AQCC since 2020, in impacted communities (such as Cultivando). This was clear as mud, since what the industry calls ‘continuous monitoring’ is nothing of the sort. These are canister-type air capture ‘sniffers’ that will fill the canister with an air sample when they are triggered…which is a big if. Others have shown (i.e. Earthworks) that illegal emissions have been captured coming off of O&G facilities that had such perimeter canister installed — and which were never triggered, and therefore never monitored the illegal emissions. Strike one for Ms. Beaver; her credulity was off to a bad start.
But, wait, there’s more! she breathlessly exclaimed: back 2017 industry developed continuous monitoring with a “statewide hydrocarbon reduction process” where industry met with …somebody, she was vague as to who…at least once a month, sometimes more frequently, and “…many things came out of that”, although she did name one. Ms. Beaver rejected the notion that “industry is fighting, and always looking for loopholes ” because they are reporting their “robust emissions inventory” (whose meaning escaped me since she did not define it), and that “this is the most robust inventory in the country…because it captures more refined equipment than even the EPA inventory does.” Wow. That sounded impressive, but I still could not understand what the hell she was talking about.
This woman’s command of legalese was indeed impressive. She rolled on to expound that “in July of this year, they kicked off the verification portion of the intensity rule, and that is going to require direct measurement of facilities..” All of this description had the overall impression of being quite vague but at the same time quite exciting. This is cutting edge! It’s going to make a huge difference! It will verify that the emissions being reported are what they say they are! My, my, my….
After that lengthy and confusing monologue by Ms. Beaver you might think that Host Booth would have wanted some clarification on all the claims she made. Nope; he pivoted directly back to Mr. Ogletree and just let Ms. Beaver’s statements go unchallenged. Perhaps he was as baffled as I was as to what she meant, and just wanted to get away. I know I certainly did; listening to this woman speak was like rubbing my ears with sandpaper.
Host Booth next directed a more direct question to Mr Olgetree: some communities have taken to monitoring their own air quality, but that the CDPHE has not agreed to consider this data in its assessing air quality; why not? At which, Ms G-N started shaking her head noticeably, which Host Booth did acknowledge with a smile. This was when my own interest level perked up, because the fact that even though the data collected by Boulder AIR continuous air monitoring stations is orders of magnitude better than anything the state has, they have refused to consider it. My eyes and ears were glued to my computer for the answer…
Mr Ogletree (Mr O) smiled and warmly acknowledged that “monitoring is…near and dear to my heart…”. Uh oh….when I hear anyone, particularly a governmental representative, start an answer like this, my spider sense starts tingling…which was confirmed when Ms G-N started shaking her head again. Nonetheless, Mr. O asserted that they had ‘looked at’ the Cultivando data, and ‘used it.’ He then stated they also consider other data, such as that collected after the Marshall Fire, which struck me as totally irrelevant, which only made me think he was trying to evade the question. He then looped back to Ms Beaver’s comment about onsite emissions monitoring…that it can be “challenging” and how “you can’t just measure everything…” Who said anything about measuring everything? I mean, good grief, we know what poisonous chemicals need to be measured; the question is: why isn’t this agency interested in it as well?
Granted that 100 per cent of all emissions cannot be measured from any particular facility. But when you already have damning evidence of intensely poisonous spikes of chemicals on record (from Boulder AIR data) from the Suncor facility, plus a number of other such incidents from the six other Boulder AIR stations, Mr O’s weak defense does not stand up to scrutiny. At the end of this little monologue of doublespeak, he weakly smiled, and said ‘I’ll leave it that.’ I don’t think he really believed his own words.
At that both Ms Garcia-Nelson and Ms Beaver at once started speaking in response; the host chose to let Ms G-N go first, as he’d notice her shaking her head during Mr O’s response; but Ms G-N graciously allowed Ms Beaver speak first. Ms B wanted to make the point that monitoring was not the same thing as enforcement. Not exactly a trenchant comment, but certainly true. Monitoring means zip unless there is strong enforcement of the law; which, as the APCD had been demonstrating over the past decade, enforcement is not exactly their strong suit. So I failed to see the point of her comment; strike two for Ms B.
Host Booth then gave the floor to Ms G-N, who had had a long history of experience with the APCD, much of it negative. I can only imagine the strength of resolve she and her colleagues at Cultivando have had to draw on in order to endure the multiple instances of disrespect, if not outright bullying, they had had to endure at their hand. Her testimony was searing and damning of how the APCD has failed in their role of protecting their community from harms inflicted by the O&G industry, from the Suncor refinery to fracking operations allowed to be constructed adjacent to elementary schools.
Next the host asked Mr O to comment on how the APCD has used the Cultivando data; he stated that did use such data. “Use” is rather a vague term, and he did no specify what this meant. He said the agency had actually recently “audited” the Cultivando monitoring station, and they are “actively using” the data. Again, there were no specific examples given of such usage.
Next the host asked about the warning procedures used when accidental emissions occur. In the past, he said the agency had been slow to respond, and could take as long as 24 hours to warn communities about such accidents. Referring to a specific instance, Mr O defended his agency’s delay because a sensor had failed, and they needed to be sure the data were valid before warning the public. Fair enough.
Next the host asked Ms B if she thought the O&G industry understands why people are upset with them, and why the public is demanding greater setbacks in the locating of their operations? Never answering his question directly, Ms B danced around the issue, stood up for the industry’s actions, and refused to admit they had done anything wrong.
Mr O discussed the impacted communities…improved communications…additional outreach and education…stronger regulations…and so on and so on. It really sounded like saying nothing while trying to appear to be saying something.
The host asked Ms G-N about this. She felt some “some progress” had been made, but not enough, and that they will continue to gather data (by which I assume she means the Boulder AIR monitoring station at Cultivando, which has a fixed site and a mobile station). I could certainly empathize with her bitter denunciations over regulatory inaction while her family, friends and neighbors have continued to be slowly poisoned, day in and day out, for decades.
The host then queried Mr O: so how about it? Are there any regulations with enough teeth in them to address this? Mr O did his best to answer, claiming that the RACTs can help; that’s bureaucratese for Reasonably Available Control Technologies. (See this EPA webpage for more background on RACTs.) More dancing; no real answers.
The host then asked Ms B how O&G operations will change in Colorado (an audio malfunction in the recording muddled this question). Ms B referred again to the (non) “continuous monitoring” that industry is now doing. Dah, dah-dah, dah-dah…more dancing around the question without answering the question. This was getting to be a foreseeable pattern.
The one entertaining bright spot in listening to this excruciating display of bureaucratic doublespeak was observing the comments being made in real time in the chat window. Its candid sarcasm was like a breath of fresh air into the rather stilted conversation between the panelists.
Ms G-N again asked what recourse do their communities have against the permits to pollute being issued to industry? Host Booth granted she had a point; this is what is done all across the nation under EPA rules.
I had been watching this stream in real time, and like observers, had been allowed to submit questions for the panelist. I recall submitting a direct question about why the CDPHE does not accept Boulder AIR data as valid, that Boulder AIR technology can measure ozone precursors while state monitors can not, and hoping it be asked of the panelists, particularly the director of the APCD…a question which I have had been wanting to ask for years now. Finally, my chance to ask this burning question had finally arrived.
And, lo and behold, at 43:50 in the recording, Host Booth mentioned my name and my question! However, he bungled it, and mixed up my question with his own question to Mr O, that Gov Polis has requested the CDPHE to start monitoring nitrous oxides (NOX), which is only one ozone precursor, though perhaps the predominant one.
Mr O, whom I understand does have formal education in atmospheric chemistry, proceeded to dissect the question about ozone precursors…sort of. He never answered my question, about why the CDPHE won’t accept Boulder AIR data as valid, never admitted that they do not even have the capability of measuring such precursors other than a few monitors that can detect nitrous oxide. Aargh! My questions still remained unanswered…just when I thought I had Mr O on the spot.
Host Booth then turned to Ms B about what industry will be doing to meet the nitrous oxide reduction targets that were recently announced by the Polis administration. She frankly admitted that industry ‘doesn’t quite know how to do that yet’, but that they’ll be working on it, with possibilities such as replacing diesel engines with electric ones, or using smaller diesel engines that pollute less; however, the industry has many different operators, some large, some small, so it will be difficult to foresee how each will pursue such goals.
Host Booth then asked Ms G-N if she would like to respond to Ms B’s statements. She emphasized how long it is going to take to complete the rulemaking process to complete the implementation of the Polis rules on NOX reduction, which will likely take two more years. Moreover, she knows enough about the industry to know they could be making such reductions right now; it is more a matter of whether they really want to do it or not.
Host Booth then read a question from a reader, who asked what does ‘financially feasible’ mean, in the context of the RACTs? Who decides what technology is used, and by whom? Mr O admitted he did not know specifically, but that they are well defined in the regs. Not a very satisfying answer from the head of the agency that supposedly oversees the implementation of such regulations…
Host Booth then turned to Ms G-N, asking what ‘financially feasible’ meant to her? Her answer was that if she was able to find the funding to create an air monitoring station, then certainly the industry could ‘find a few pennies’ to get better monitoring equipment, and not pay their CEOs such exorbitant salaries; that industry talks a good line about wanting to protect communities, but actions speak louder than words. Way to go, Ms G-N!
Host Booth then allowed Ms B to take a whack at the same question, who replied that ‘cost effective’ was the key term….and, ye gods, she simply rambled on and on about that without saying much.
Finally, Host Booth asked for closing comments. Mr O related he grew up in southern California, which had some pretty bad air pollution, much worse than Colorado; and that, as a person of color, he had experienced discrimination too. I fail to see how that was relevant, though I sympathized with his experience. I guess he was indirectly expressing support for the environmental injustice happening to the Cultivando community, though he could have stated it more directly.
Predictably, Ms B’s closing comments sang the praises of the O&G industry, and what great work they are doing, blah-blah-blah….
Mrs G-N got the last word. She empathized with Mr O’s experience, and granted that he had a tough job. Still, what she heard from him and Ms B was that ‘things aren’t so bad’ but she did not agree. She recounted that the O&G industry had targeted her ‘personally’, and did not have much good to say about them. She encouraged the listeners to take action, and ‘to learn to say no’, because we are running out of time. I couldn’t agree more.