Category Archives: City of Fort Collins

To my local electeds: Why we need to monitor our local air quality

Dear reader: this is an open letter to the Fort Collins Council and Larimer County Commissioners about the need for a substantive air quality monitoring (AQM) plan for our region — because we cannot depend on the state to provide it. More importantly, the letter addresses the ultimate question of the purpose of air quality monitoring and its ultimate goal: to improve our air quality. Any rational plan for improving air quality would involve two basic steps: identifying the causes of the pollution, and, next, adopting measures to reduce or eliminate the cause. To date, the state’s AQM programs have been a regulatory failure, and the Front Range public is growing increasingly dissatisfied with them.

Because such measures could become contentious, and involve legal disputes, the quality and reliability of AQM data must be sound enough to withstand regulatory and legal scrutiny. This is a foremost requirement, and should be recognized at the outset if the ultimate goal of improving our air quality is to be achieved. Exactly what measures will need to be taken to reduce the sources of our ozone pollution are yet unknown; but identifying the exact sources of the pollution is an undeniable first step towards any effective solution.

I hope this open letter will help to inform, educate and inspire some of you to contact your own electeds as well, and ask them for the same.

Note on acronyms: AQM = Air Quality Monitoring


Dear Fort Collins City Council and Larimer County Commissioners:

We have an urgent need to improve and strength our local air quality monitoring (AQM) programs, because the efforts of the state’s AQM programs have been a regulatory failure.

Our air quality problems are a regional problem; no single city or county can effectively do much about it. Until local communities in the Front Range band together to demand, in unison and with a strategic plan, that the state take decisive action against the real source of ozone pollution, I fear it is never going to happen. I fear that Weld County, and in other O&G plays around the state, will continue to encourage the drilling of new oil and gas wells, and continue to worsen our already severe ozone pollution, until I am in my grave — unless there is a unification of the local cities and counties across the Front Range in demanding a dramatic change in state regulatory policy. I have completely lost faith in our politically hamstrung, obsequiously passive, operationally opaque, and publicly unresponsive regulatory agencies to do anything effective about our ozone problem. They have done next to nothing but pass around paper, and issue press releases that congratulate themselves about what a great job they’re doing for years. This is despite the passing of SB-181 in 2019, which supposedly gave local communities the legal authority to regulate the O&G industry.

However, SB-181 did not address air quality at all, and left the existing regulatory agencies largely intact, which have been slow to react to impacted communities. Just ask the Green Latinos organization how much they were helped in their battles with Suncor. These heavily polluted communities in Commerce City had been complaining for years to the state air quality agencies to no effect. Finally, after a dramatic failure at the refinery in 2019, there was a $9 million fine against Suncor, and part of those proceeds were used to fund a mobile Boulder AIR monitoring station there. This collected data for a year, which showed conclusively how much more polluted the air in these communities was. The Green Latinos thought this scientific data would be enough to prove to the CDPHE that more restrictions against Suncor were needed. Did the APCD and CDPHE listen?

No such luck; their requests for additional rules against Suncor’s emissions were rejected. The only change since then has been the creation of a department of Environmental Justice within the CDPHE, which sounds nice but functions little more than window dressing when it comes to tough enforcement decisions. The CDPHE marches merrily along, doing more studies, creating more task forces, and never, ever rejecting emissions permits from O&G operators. They seem to think they are doing a great job, such as the Globeville, Elyria, and Swansea
Community Health Study
. The webpage and report look great; but it changed nothing in terms of industry’s ability to get more permits and pollute more air.

If they are doing such a great job, then why are one out of three summer days now ozone alert days? What have they really done to address the “severe” category of EPA bad air quality rating? How much have the precursors that produce this ozone pollution been reduced? Is there even any mention of plan to measure these precursors?

To each of those questions the answer is a resounding “No”. Has there been any change in enforcement actions against known O&G violators? Ask EarthJustice, which has fielded an OGI camera operator in the northern Colorado area for the past several years. I recently profiled their 2023 report in this blog post: Certified Disaster: a powerful report hits home. Seeing is believing, and the OGI videos, recorded at scores of locations scattered across northern Colorado, are inescapable evidence of how O&G operators repeatedly violate their emission permits with impunity from the regulatory agency, the Air Pollution Control Division with the CDPHE.

As for a personal testimony of how just how bad the air quality in Weld Countyis and how it has ruined the quality of life for some citizens there, read this report from a local citizen: A Citizen’s Testimony.

Such powerful evidence shows how this is a regional air quality issue, not confined to a few local O&G operations.

The Existing Effort Is Not Enough

The existing air quality monitors for Fort Collins are shown its Air Quality webpage. There are six monitors inside the city limits, and two more in northern Larimer County, as shown in this screenshot:

All of these stations only monitor for ozone and particulates however:

Why is this not good enough? Because they do not indicate the ozone precursors, only the final result which is ozone. Ozone is not produced directly at the pollution source; the polluting source creates gasses known as ozone precursors, which when combined with sunlight, create surface level ozone.

Ozone precursors have two primary sources: vehicular emissions and O&G activity, which are two very different things. Any effective ozone management plan would need separate policies to address the two separate sources; no single policy can remedy both, as they will require very different approaches to reduce them. And any effective policies will need to know how much each source is responsible for its share of contributing to the ozone problem. The scientific process of identifying the respective sources is called source attribution, which is a well known and tractable problem in atmospheric chemistry. While complex, this is not unknown territory; the methods and procedures to identify these sources are known. What we lack is political will and a unified plan to address it.

In essence, what needs to happen is simple: (1) identify the source of the ozone precursors, and (2) reduce their creation at the source. While step (2) may be problematic, and politically difficult, what is not so difficult is the step (1): identification of the source. One would think this should be a no-brainer.

But this is where the state approach has been so woefully lacking. Because the O&G industry had exerted such strong control over how the state regulated them for so long, in the pre-SB-181 days, they were effectively self-regulating. And they still are, in some important respects. On average, active wells are only inspected by a state inspector every few years, because there are so few of them. All spills or emission events are self-reported by the operators. In nearly all phases of an O&G well after it has been permitted — and they have been rarely refused under the Polis administration — the drilling, the onsite operations, the fracking, and the production of fossil fuels from a well is done under a self-reporting approach.

This is why a robust air quality monitoring program — which collects scientifically valid and legally defensible data — is so needed and could be a key part of a strategic plan to reduce ozone precursors; and thereby our severe ozone pollution. The other advantage? Locally controlled AQM programs will not be under the control of the state agencies that have failed to do their job.

In fact, distrust of the state air regulatory agencies was the reason in the first place that local jurisdictions began building their own AQM stations: so that they could produce and trust their own data. Although there was never a long range plan on how to use the data constructively, there was enough public concern over their air pollution that they were built anyway. The company they contracted to build them was Boulder AIR because they are built with state of the art equipment to collect continuous, real time air quality samples, which are published on a public website within 15 minutes. They are the gold standard of air quality monitoring stations in the state. Despite their exalted reputation within the monitoring community, the CDPHE has never accepted Boulder AIR data as valid for its own policy making decisions. The reason for this has never been made clear, except for the fact that their own sensors did not generate it. In case anyone would like to inform the CDPHE: there is such a thing as learning from experience, and admitting when you are wrong. In reality, the CDPHE simply will not admit that it has no comparable data collection capability, and will continue to stubbornly resist that it would benefit the public if they would do so, but are only likely need to do so when forced by new legislation — which seems to be where this standoff is headed.

The standards and quality of the data which Boulder AIR stations collect exceeds what the state collects with its monitors. The majority of CDPHE monitors collect only ozone data. Only a minority can detect NOx at all, and even these cannot detect the difference between ozone precursors the way that Boulder AIR monitors can; and none of them publish their data automatically within a few minutes on a public-facing website, and store their data in the internet cloud. No other monitoring system’s data has been audited by the EPA and accepted into its repository for Air Quality Data Collected at Outdoor Monitors Across the US (see www.epa.gov/outdoor-air-quality-data)

Our local electeds really need more information on the comparative functionality of the various sensors that are being discussed.

Beyond understanding the differences in the how the equipment in monitoring stations works, and how that affects the quality of the data they collect, what is really lacking is a plan on what to do with this data.

What is needed: a strategic plan

What has become apparent after years of data collection by the state agencies and local jurisdictions is that none of this has been coordinated by any kind of overall strategic plan focused on the real roots of the problem. As so often occurs when the really tough questions need to be asked, there is every incentive to avoid them; or, worse yet, put political and legal roadblocks in the way of even allowing such questions to be asked. And even if they are asked, to deflect them away.

Such has been the evolution of developing legislation — any legislation — that can identify the cause of our ozone pollution, and have the teeth to really address it. This has been the political obstacle, where entrenched interests defending the O&G industry have obstructed any legislation that regulates them. Even the historic passage of SB-181 did nothing to address air pollution.

Local air quality monitoring began with Boulder County’s station at the Boulder Reservoir in 2015. Since then, it has built stations in Longmont (two), Erie and Broomfield. (The last was suspended for 2024, but Broomfield is reconsidering that decision based on recent survey; see Broomfield’s annual focus session puts … air quality in the spotlight, Daily Camera, 3/8/24) This represents a substantial investment by these local jurisdictions to get real-time, high quality data that tells them exactly what is in their air.

But is knowing what is in your air enough? Is it enough just to know to what degree your community is being slowly poisoned? For those who have personally suffered the health effects of such poisoning, the answer is obviously no; the cause should be addressed, not just the symptoms. But up to now, the only actions that have been taken by the state and local jurisdictions is to develop ‘ozone alerts’, and warn people, via text, email and social media, to not go outside.

This approach might be tolerated if the alert days were rare; but when they start to become one out of every three days during the summer months, the situation is no longer tolerable. It is becoming a chronic problem…and some kind of remediative action must be taken. How long will people tolerate inaction by our electeds on this matter? Although there has been an exceptional level of legislative action in the current term, even if all the bills dealing with ozone pollution are passed this year, they will still not get at the real root of the problem: knowing which ozone precursors are causing the problem, where the generation source is located, and which areas are being the most affected. All three of these phases of our ozone pollution problem need to be identified in order for a coherent management plan to develop. This will only be possible if there is a state-level coordinated suite of monitors, operated in a coordinated fashion, that is focused on gathering such data.

There has been some activity among the local cities that have installed Boulder AIR monitors; this deserves more coverage, as the entire region could benefit from their coordinated collaboration. This only makes sense, because the more monitors you can add to a network, it increases the value of the overall data. Just as in social media or economics, there is a “network effect” where the more nodes there are on a network, the more value of the data of each individual node.

And here is another unique advantage of the Boulder AIR data: its ability to combine its live data stream with wind vector data to construct images that can show the intensity a pollutant over a region over certain period of time. The exact interpretation of these images requires expert interpretation; but what is undeniable, is that these images are based on science-based data collected by calibrated instruments.

Here are a couple of images to suggest what is possible:

The above images suggest what is possible with Boulder AIR data: realistic two dimensional maps of pollution intensity over the nearby region of the monitoring station over a specific time period. Such information could be extremely valuable, I would think, to the jurisdictions interested in their

One caveat to the above images: they require a certain amount of highly customized work effort to produce by Boulder AIR, at the present time. However, in my opinion, these trial versions, like any trial version in a production process, could be improved upon. In my experience with software, I would see no reason why such data could not be transformed into animated images, like weather radar, given sufficient resources to accomplish the task. This is the power of combining the Boulder AIR stations data into a concerted effort: joint efforts could result in amplified benefits to all involved due to the combined nature of the data covering a wider region.

And, in the final analysis, this is what is needed for a regional approach to a regional problem: a linked network of monitoring stations capable of gathering uniformly calibrated data to produce a comprehensive picture of the problem. No other AQM technology comes even close to providing this type of comprehensive coverage for a regional area.

But asking the various local jurisdictions to continue to voluntarily coordinate efforts to share data seems wholly insufficient; which begs the question: to what end? No matter how much data we gather on how much our environment and people are being poisoned, this will never solve the problem. The only action that will solve the problem is to reduce the generation of the ozone precursors at their source.

LARIMER ALLIANCE WITHDRAWS ENDORSEMENT OF ALEXANDER ADAMS

This message was sent out on the Larimer Alliance listserv on October 26, 2023.

Last Monday, October 16, the Larimer Alliance announced our endorsements for the current election to the Fort Collins City Council. In the race for the District 6 seat, we endorsed Alexander Adams based on the comprehensive responses he provided to our questionnaire on environmental issues in Northern Colorado.

On Tuesday the 17th certain information about past online activity on the part of Alexander was brought to our attention. While not central to his response to our questions, his appearances on a variety of forums advocating what can only be described as hateful and reprehensible stances on a range of social justice issues are problematic. Postings related to white nationalist and racist philosophy were particularly disturbing.

We determined to look into that history as provided in one of our local forums as well as conducting our own background checks. We also decided to reach out to Alexander directly, seeking his confirmation that he had disavowed those views, and asking for references who could speak to the sincerity of his evolving views. We have the impression that not everyone who have raised these issues have taken that step.

He met with our representatives last Friday and addressed our questions and provided some referrals as we requested. We heard from those advocates on his behalf over the weekend. These included college friends who knew him during both that troubling era as well as currently, and at least one mentor.

Since then, this information has been made public in local social media postings and in the Fort Collins Coloradoan. We cannot dispute that his past postings online are terrible, but the possibility that he has undergone a sincere change of heart in the three years since they appeared is something we can neither prove nor disprove.

We still appreciate the stances that Alexander took regarding the key environmental issues we addressed in our questionnaire. But under the circumstances we don’t feel there is enough of a track record of how he has shifted from some of the more disturbing activities in his past. With that in mind, we must withdraw our endorsement of his candidacy for the District 6 post.

We should be clear that while we do not agree with some of the conclusions he has drawn in his current work for the Firearms Research Center of the School of law at the University of Wyoming, the papers and postings he has generated in that regard are not couched in racist or hateful terms. That is an issue over which people can attempt to have reasonable disagreements, and debates about the validity of research. He has also indicated he is a fiscal conservative, but that too is not necessarily at odds with taking a stance in favor of environmental advocacy.

Second chances are something all of us may have benefited from at different times in our lives. It is our hope that if Alexander has indeed shifted in the way he communicated to us last Friday, that he will consider, if not elected to Council, other ways he might serve in our community and establish a history of a more rational and empathetic outlook on the pressing social issues of our time. He is to be commended for being willing to sit with us and answer some tough and pretty uncomfortable questions.

There may be those who question why we took so long to arrive at this decision, and we can only say we needed to pursue this on our own. The chance to communicate directly with Alexander and to hear from his close advocates and friends was an important part of that. But at this point, there are many issues of pressing importance that we need to focus on moving forward and hopefully this is something that can be put behind us all.

The O&G policies of the Fort Collins City Council: a setback or a step forward?

The Larimer Alliance has been closely monitoring the evolving policies of the City Council as they develop specific rules around how to address past and possible future oil and gas (O&G) facilities inside the city limits. Closely related are the O&G policies adopted by the Larimer County Commissioners.

The latest news is that the Council has nearly completed its rules about setbacks with regards to existing O&G wells. Setbacks, of course, refers to how close new O&G facilities (oil wells, storages tanks or pipelines) are allowed to be constructed next to homes or buildings or other outdoor facilities (parks, bike paths, etc); and reverse setbacks refers to how close such homes, etc. are allowed to be built to existing O&G facilities.

There was a ‘first reading’ on September 5, 2023, where an initial vote was taken, and the ‘second reading’ will be at the next Council meeting on September 19. The vote at this second reading will be final, and will establish the land use code governing setbacks and O&G facilities, disclosures.

There was a good summary of the issue in an article in the September 8, 2023 Coloradoan. (“Fort Collins continues oil and gas regulation: Here’s what reverse setbacks look like“) In summary, the Council recommended a 2,000 foot setback for producing wells, a 500 foot setback for abandoned wells that have not been plugged (“reclaimed”), and a 150 foot setback for plugged and abandoned wells (“fully reclaimed”). The only change from current rules is that the setback for producing wells was increased from 500 to 2,000 feet.

At our last count (see this map on the LA website), there are 113 producing wells in the county, none of which, I believe, are inside the city. So, the issue could be seen as a ‘tempest in a tea cup’, which has a small chance of ever happening. There are just a handful of plugged and abandoned, or even ‘temporarily abandoned’, inside city limits, as recorded on the other maps on our website.

Despite the low probability of any new wells getting drilled here, the LA sent the following letter to the Council on September 1, 2023:

Subject: Larimer Alliance Statement on Draft Reverse Setback Standards for Oil and Gas Sites
Mayor Arndt and City Council Members:

We are aware that on September 5 Fort Collins City Council will be conducting a first reading on Land Use Code recommendations from Planning Staff regarding reverse setbacks of property developments from existing oil and gas sites. We have been part of the deliberations with your staff and appreciate their continued involvement in our participation in this process. We have also made our concerns known before the Planning and Zoning Commission when they reviewed the Staff recommendations in their July 17 meeting. 

We have received a copy of the proposed regulations from Kirk Longstein in the Planning Department, and want to comment again on the recommendations presented in that document. We have attached it here again for your review, although we are aware you will have it in your files already. 

Our concerns focus on three main areas of interest:

  1. Setbacks. We support the proposed inclusion of all buildings (not only residential properties) in the setback. However, the setback should be designated to the property boundary or outdoor use areas (rather than to only buildings) because health and safety should be protected for outdoor use areas, including play areas and outdoor recreation, picnic and work areas.

Existing oil and gas facilities pose serious risks to health and safety and require significant protective measures. To provide reasonable health and safety protection, the setback for new buildings from existing oil and gas facilities (aka “reverse setback”) should be the same as the setback for new oil and gas facilities from existing buildings and neighborhoods. 

Therefore, we do not support the proposed setback of only 500 feet to an abandoned (but not fully reclaimed) well, or the proposed setback of only 150 feet to a plugged and abandoned well. As evidenced in this recent article from the Colorado Sun, issues can come up years after the cessation of operations at oil and gas facilities, including wells that were deemed properly plugged and abandoned. While technologies have improved somewhat, cement and other materials remain subject to degradation and failure over time, posing risks to health and safety extending years and decades.

We appreciate that Staff does not recommend differentiating between types of active drilling processes whether conventional, fracked, or EOR. Whatever industry claims are made regarding emissions from different types of wells, no system is fail-safe.

To provide reasonable health and safety protection, the setback should be at least 2,500 feet. We do not support a 2,000 foot setback because it is not based on science and medical evidence regarding health and safety risks in proximity to oil and gas facilities. A large and growing body of medical research supports a setback of at least 2,500 feet and in 2022 the State of California established a 3,200 foot setback.

  1. We believe the monitoring of oil and gas sites after operations have ceased must continue to be conducted for a substantial period of time. Old oil and gas facilities pose dangers, as evidenced in the above noted article from the Colorado Sun. Any emissions would pose health and safety risks for the occupants of nearby property, and the potential for a next Firestone tragedy should not be taken lightly. We suggest monitoring for at least ten years would be appropriate.
  2. Disclosure requirements for any new development going in near an operating well site, or a site that has been abandoned, should be consistently delineated. If existing real estate law mandate that is the responsibility of subsequent owners following a developer’s initial five-year construction guarantee, that needs to be set by statute. If property developers are concerned that such notifications may impact the property value by suggesting a potential hazard may be present, we can only ask: How anxious are they to live in proximity to an oil and gas site, whether operational or ostensibly properly plugged and abandoned?

We are aware that reverse setbacks are perceived as somehow being different from the setback standards established for oil and gas operators seeking to set up new well sites. We could not disagree more. The potential hazard remains the same, no matter which perspective we are viewing it from. We are also aware that the City is still preparing operational standards for future oil and gas development that might happen within the jurisdiction of Fort Collins. 

All of this may seem almost academic given how few existing sites there are, and how limited the prospect for future oil and gas extraction is projected to be. However, making sure that consistent standards are in place is our best protection against any potential harm to our environment and our community’s health and well-being. We trust you will take these concerns seriously as you consider the question of how to handle reverse setbacks, and the development of residential and business properties near existing oil and gas sites. Thank you for your attention to this matter. 

The issue of abandoned wells is not a trivial one, because unfortunately there is a perennial risk of possible leaks from even supposedly plugged and abandoned wells. This recent article in the Colorado Sun is just one small example of this: Residential development in Erie, Longmont stalled after wells plugged decades ago start leaking oil and gas (August 28, 2023)

Indeed, the looming threat of thousands of “orphaned” abandoned wells that were not properly plugged is a known hazard. The cost of cleaning them up, as well as the 50,000 current producing wells, could cost as much as $7 billion. Consequently, Colorado legislators have been drafting legislation aimed at shoring up the funds to cover this. (See ‘Colorado’s new rules to prevent ‘orphaned’ oil wells could fail to cover cleanup costs, report says’, Colorado Newsline, September 9, 2023, and ‘Nearly half of Colorado’s 52,000 wells produce little or no oil. Who’ll pay to plug them?‘ Colorado Sun, August 22, 2021) Between 2015 and 2020, more wells were plugged than were drilled.

With this kind of evidence, the city and county needs to be mindful of any existing wells that will need to plugged, and how such plugged wells will be monitored into the future. At the moment, the issues have only been partially addressed, and will likely need to be revisited again. At least, the issue is not an immediately pressing one, and the city’s new rules on setbacks are an improvement over what existed before.

A priority for Fort Collins City Council Going Forward

The following was submitted to the opinion section of the Fort Collins Coloradoan following their article on April 30 which solicited citizen ideas for priorities for the City Council.

Editor:

I read with interest the article in the Coloradoan on Sunday, April 30, looking at the various priorities the Fort Collins City Council are working on. I don’t fault the goals, nor the intention to try and arrive at the best solution across a range of difficult issues. 

Of particular interest to me is the commitment of the City toward establishing a regulatory scheme for oil and gas operations. The City Council approved amendments to their land use code on April 4, focusing on setbacks and zoning to restrict the actual territory within city limits available for oil and gas development. This is a good first step, but by itself does not represent comprehensive regulation. While I am aware our fair city may be on the edge of the Denver-Julesburg Basin, and very few legacy sites are actually present within the City’s growth management area, it would be naive to say we are not still at risk to have further exploration occurring within the greater Fort Collins area. The oil and gas industry organizations presented their own argument prior to April 4 that opposed even the use of setback and zoning to constrain their operations, suggesting there may be more brewing beneath the surface than immediately meets the eye. 

I am a member of the Larimer Alliance for Health, Safety, & the Environment, and we advocated for more detailed regulations. At present, we are communicating with City Council and Staff for the modifications to municipal code that may fill the gaps. Fort Collins is likely to be annexing territory to the East of current city limits, if not to the North as well, where the two legacy operations have caused considerable problems for residents. Given that there is substantial industry interest in territory around Wellington and Windsor, the notion that some oil and gas activity may eventually find its way into the future growth management area of Fort Collins is not at all beyond the realm of possibility. 

As well, the City and County should also be looking at more comprehensive, real time and networked air quality monitoring systems beyond the canister type of site-based sensors that can tell of an issue after it has already happened. The reality is that while there may be minimal oil and gas activity destined to happen within Fort Collins and Larimer County, we are heavily impacted by the emissions from over 20,000 wells in Weld County that have left the Front Range with some of the worst air quality in the country. And the greatest source of precursors to surface level atmospheric ozone, which grievously affects the health of our citizens, are the emissions of oil and gas sites concentrated so heavily to our immediate East. 

Thank you.

Ed Behan

Fort Collins, Colorado