The Colorado Oil & Gas Association (COGA) announced last week the launch of a two-month “Clear the Air: the Facts on CEO” campaign to inform Coloradans about the steps the state’s oil and gas industry has taken to reduce ozone levels. In particular, COGA and its members are highlighting the innovations and regulations they believe have reduced ozone-forming emissions, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) resulting from industry activities.
In a statement, COGA President & CEO Dan Haley spoke about the technological improvements, regulatory initiatives, and industry actions that have helped reduce emissions:
“We’ve seen significant reductions of ozone-causing emissions from Colorado’s oil and gas industry in recent years. That’s due to technological innovation, regulatory initiatives, and leadership from our industry. We need to keep this momentum going. It’s good for our health, our environment, and our state.”
COGA’s campaign comes just weeks after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) delayed implementation of the Obama administration’s 2015 ground-level ozone standard until 2018. In October 2015, EPA tightened the ozone standard from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to 70 ppb, setting a tougher standard for states to reach.
According to COGA’s “CEO” campaign website, the state’s VOCs emissions have plummeted by nearly half in just six years – even as oil production in the state quadrupled:
“Over the past six years, the state’s oil and gas industry nearly halved its emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in the Metro Denver and North Front Range Ozone Nonattainment Area, while oil production quadrupled statewide. Oil and gas emissions of VOCs decreased from 280 to 154 tons-per-day between 2011 and 2017.”
Scott Prestidge, communications and public affairs director for COGA, told Energy in Depth, “We are moving in the right direction.”
Prestidge says the oil and gas industry has made efforts to meet voluntary goals set by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) that reduce emissions without scaling back operations, but noted that challenges remain due to circumstances beyond the state’s control.
“There is little flexibility written into federal compliance with each new ozone standard. Colorado’s air is much cleaner today than 10, 20, or even 30 years ago,” Prestidge told Energy In Depth. Compliance “has not been easy” given the amount of background ozone that flows into the state.
Prestidge explained the difficulty of addressing background ozone from other areas:
“Colorado non-attainment is in large part due to unique circumstances. In fact, Coloradans are responsible for only 25 percent of the ozone in the Metro Denver and North Front Range Ozone non-attainment area. Seventy-five percent is background ozone, with much of it originating in other states and other countries. The lack of flexibility at the federal level in recognizing this fact makes it all the more difficult to comply.”
A 2015 study demonstrating a 21 percent drop in pollutants contributing to ozone in the western United States between 2005 and 2010 also showed that much of that gain was offset by what National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory called “a combination of naturally occurring atmospheric processes and pollutants crossing the Pacific Ocean from China.”
Both COGA and the state’s top Democratic official agree that state and industry policies have helped Colorado chip away at ozone pollution even as the state contends with geographical, topographical and other factors that make ozone mitigation a challenge.
After calling for a suspension of the 2015 standard last year, Gov. John Hickenlooper told Western Wire earlier this month that the EPA’s delay would not “deter our efforts to move toward compliance with the 2008 standard”:
“Colorado has made significant progress in reducing ozone emissions, both through the Clean Air Clean Jobs Act and the 2014 methane regulations. … Regardless of what the federal government does, we will reduce ozone pollution not only for cleaner air, but for improved health of the citizens of Colorado.”
A 2016 EPA report concluded that Denver and other Front Range areas would not meet the 2015 ozone standard by 2025. But Will Allison, director of the CDPHE’s Air Pollution Control Division, conceded that “30 to 50 percent of the ozone that we’re monitoring is background and beyond our control” and that “despite the air pollution challenges associated with increasing population, our ozone levels have improved over time.”
Concerns over ozone levels in the Denver metro area can be traced to reports such as the 2015 American Lung Association (ALA) that CDPHE called “inaccurate” and Allison said “misrepresents” the progress made over the past few decades, as he told Energy In Depth:
“Ozone levels have been, if anything, flat or perhaps going down a bit. They tend to bounce around in a certain bandwidth. It is worth noting that ozone levels have remained relatively flat over the last decade or two, yet we’ve seen tremendous growth in Colorado in terms of population and in terms of industry. I think that is a testament to the fact that we’ve had a lot of very effective regulations in place and business practices in place to drive down emissions despite the growth.
“We can point to significant reductions in our emissions over the last decade. Those reductions do not always translate linearly to lower ozone levels and some of that is because of factors beyond our control, such as weather or the transport of emissions from other parts of the country or even other nations.”
As Denver Post columnist Vincent Carroll wrote in response to the ALA’s 2015 claims:
“Air pollution remains a problem in Colorado and will, in all likelihood, for decades. But it’s important to understand where we’ve come from and where we actually are, and not to fudge the data.”
He cited the widely available data on ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide emissions that had dropped significantly since not just the 1970s, but even the 1990s.
When presented with Carroll’s information, the ALA backtracked, admitting that “ozone is not worse than in the 1970s” for the Denver metro area.
In its press release, COGA noted recent monitoring data from the state’s Air Pollution Control Division that saw fewer than 30 “ozone-exceedance days” in each of the past three years according to the 2015 standard of 70 parts per billion – down from 60 such days in 2012 alone:
“This means that not only are the number of days over the standard going down, the magnitude of the exceedances is also decreasing, which can be attributed in part to regional efforts made to reduce emissions of NOx and VOCs.”
U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) shared Hickenlooper’s concerns regarding the 2015 ozone standard at a panel hosted by COGA in August that year, stating that the standard “doesn’t make sense on the ground”:
“And this is the perfect example of applying the law and doing it in a way that doesn’t make sense on the ground. Because of the pollution that’s come in from other Western states, from across the globe, from wildfires in the West, we have significant parts of our state that would be in non-attainment [unintelligible] from the very beginning of the law.
“That doesn’t make any sense. That’s not going to work.”