Mountain States

KIITG Activists Want Stay at Home Orders To Be ‘Starting Point’ for Future Energy Policies

In a surprising move, “Keep It In the Ground” activists in Colorado are calling for stay at home policies implemented during COVID-19 to be the “starting point in which we should imagine our world” after the crisis ends. These activists want to shut down oil and natural gas production, stop highway construction, and push expensive climate policies in the Denver metro area – and all based on a study that’s own authors acknowledge shouldn’t be used to make policy decisions.

The call for stay at home orders to serve as a starting point came in a front-page story in Colorado Politics which quoted the state director of Environment Colorado, saying:

“‘While COVID-19 has helped our air quality, it should serve as a starting point in which we should imagine our world after this,’ said Hannah Collazo, the state director of Environment Colorado, a research and policy nonprofit. For starters, she said, life post-pandemic could include driving less, using public transit more, keeping some roads closed to cars, and regularly working remotely to reduce daily commutes.

“Most importantly, she and other environmental experts say, it could include stronger air pollution protection at the federal and state levels and a harder push toward renewable energy. ‘We want to be really clear that we are not taking any joy in COVID-19 leading to healthier air,’ she stressed. ‘We just think it’s a really opportune time for gathering data that we can use — once we are no longer sheltering in place — when we’re crafting legislation or trying to educate the public.’”

Other activists groups are echoing a similar call, using COVID-19 to justify bans on oil and natural gas production. More than a dozen groups including 350 Colorado, The Sunrise Movement, and WildEarth Guardians started a petition calling on Gov. Jared Polis to stop energy development they oppose:

“Please sign and share the petition below calling for all fossil fuel extraction and production activities known to release harmful VOCs and air pollution to be ceased, without exception, throughout the state for at least 30 days and until the pandemic is contained in Colorado.”

It’s not just oil and natural gas, but all types of economic activity. Westword reports that activist groups and politicians have asked that Gov. Jared Polis stop construction on I-70 north of Denver:

“‘It is imperative that we act now to protect the health of those sheltering in place near the I-70 Central Project until the threat of COVID-19 is behind us,’ reads the letter, signed by a wide range of activist groups and elected officials, including the Colorado Latino Forum, Earthjustice, the Colorado Sierra Club and Denver City Councilwoman Candi CdeBaca.”

Meanwhile, Westword also reports that the Denver Climate Change Task Force is “forging ahead” despite the economic havoc brought on by COVID-19 – and the price tag is expensive:

“The price tag for the list of clean-energy measures being considered by the city’s Climate Action Task Force could start at $200 million annually and rise to $400 million annually by 2030, according to analysis presented during an online meeting on Thursday, May 7. Overall, that could add up to a cost of nearly $3.5 billion over ten years.” (emphasis added)

Policies Based Off Of Dubious Study

The Colorado Politics story and the calls to shut down oil and natural production and road construction all cited a flawed study from Harvard University that claims to link COVID-19 deaths with long-term exposure to air pollution – a study that the lead author has explicitly said should not be used in policies decisions.

That’s because after publishing the not yet peer-reviewed preliminary study, experts in the field began to identify errors in the research.

The authors originally claimed “that a person living for decades in a county with high levels of fine particulate matter is 15 percent more likely to die from the coronavirus than someone in a region with one unit less of the fine particulate pollution” as the New York Times reported. NYT also wrote:

“‘The study results underscore the importance of continuing to enforce existing air pollution regulations to protect human health both during and after the Covid-19 crisis,’ the study said.”

But the 15 percent number was quickly cut in half as the authors were forced to revise their study:

“Notice: In the revision on April 24, 2020, we have updated our analysis using data up to April 22, and importantly in which we have adjusted for additional confounding factors that also reflect the timing of the epidemic’s spread, the timing of the social distancing policies and the population age distribution. Consequently, we have revised our finding as that an increase of 1 μg/m3 in PM2.5 is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate (95% confidence interval [CI]: 2%, 15%). (emphasis added)

In fact, just a month after the NYT article, the Washington Post reported that lead author Francesca Domininci had started to downplay the findings of the study:

“And she agreed that pollution regulation should be set based on more than a single piece of research. ‘Our study is one study,’ she said. ‘I don’t think that major policy decisions should be made based on our study.’” (emphasis added)

It’s possible that even more issues will be identified once the study undergoes peer-review, as The Guardian notes. Additionally, The Guardian explains:

“Researchers caution that plausibility is far from proof, and correlation does not necessarily mean causation, as many other factors may be important.”

Notably, critics of the research include scientists that have supported bans on oil and natural gas. For instance,  a recent Wall Street Journal editorial quoted one such scientist who said the research was full of “shortcomings”:

“‘As epidemiologists who have studied air pollution for more than two decades, we found [the study’s] impacts staggering,’ note Carleton University’s Paul Villeneuve and McGill University’s Mark Goldberg. ‘When we looked closely at the research, we saw so many shortcomings that we were not convinced of the results.’ Mr. Goldberg, by the way, has supported a fracking moratorium.”

EID has previously covered Goldberg’s extended criticisms of the study and a warning from MedRxiv, the server hosting the study:

“We also urge journalists and other individuals . . . to consider this when discussing work that appears on medRxiv preprints and emphasize it has yet to be evaluated by the medical community and the information presented may be erroneous.” (emphasis added)

Progress Made Against Brown Cloud

The Colorado Politics story and accompanying photograph features the infamous “Brown Cloud” of pollution that sometimes hangs in the air around the Denver metro area.

Colorado has unique challenges dealing with the “Brown Cloud” and air pollution because of background ozone that comes from different states and other countries, as well as the state’s unique topography. Likewise, the story mentioned that Denver sits in a “bowl” because of the surrounding Rocky Mountains where air pollution can become trapped. It’s why a top state environmental official said that even if Colorado did everything perfectly, it would still have ozone pollution because of what blows into the state and what occurs naturally.

The state’s oil and natural industry has made strong progress on reducing its share of emissions that lead to ozone and now only accounts for a small fraction of the total.

And Denver has made tremendous progress in fighting back against the “Brown Cloud.” Fox 31 reported last year:

“Denver air pollution needs to be put into perspective. In the early 1990s — when far fewer people were living in the Denver area — air quality was a lot worse. Now, it’s better, thanks to cleaner emissions technology.

‘Our long-term trends of all these pollutants are down anywhere from 20 — in some cases 90 — percent,’ said Gregg Thomas, director of Denver’s Environmental Quality Division.”

Likewise, former Gov. John Hickenlooper did well addressing air quality and ozone pollution problems during his time as governor by working with the Environmental Protection Agency, state health officials, communities, industries, and other stakeholders. Hickenlooper’s strategy was a success until his successor, Gov. Jared Polis, actively pushed the EPA to downgrade Colorado into non-attainment which enabled him to enact a stricter regulatory agenda. Groups like WildEarth Guardians, which have criticized Hickenlooper, pushed Polis and the EPA to make this happen.


Environmental activists are yet again seizing on the COVID-19 crisis to take aim at economic activity they don’t like and are citing a dubious study to bolster their arguments. They ignore the progress made by industry to combat air pollution and are supporting policies that would hurt the state’s economic recovery. As Debbie Brown, President of the Colorado Business Roundtable, wrote in Colorado Politics,a “thriving” economy is crucial is the state’s future:

“In the post-pandemic future, the ability to restart our economy will depend on this understanding of the role businesses play — creating a thriving economy that works for everyone and ultimately betters our lives. Business is important in normal times. Now, the policies we set in coming days will affect the livelihood of millions in Colorado.”

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