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Polis v Earth: Reckoning


Graphic by De La Vaca 

The environment is a crucial issue for the current generation of Coloradans. Environment is critical to our state identity, yet concerns are heightened due to the impact of environmental conditions on the health of residents, the quality of communities, and the sustainability of the planet. It’s a global concern, but especially contentious in Colorado due to the prevalence of the oil industry and the concerns of environmental advocates.

Governor Jared Polis was able to tap into this issue during his gubernatorial campaign, garnering support from progressive groups – even while doubted by our local health and safety organizations – by expressing a determination to regulate the oil and gas industry, and by articulating plans to implement renewable energy programs.

Now that Polis has completed his first year in the Governor’s Office, let’s evaluate his progress.

Before diving into the details, it can help to analyze the crucial factors that contribute to environmental conditions in Colorado. By far the two main sources of pollution in the state are vehicles and oil extraction activities. It’s Spring. Let’s lean into the green by discussing the environmental issues facing Colorado, the progress that Gov. Polis has (or hasn’t) made, and the challenges that must still be overcome.


Vehicle Pollution


The abundance of cars on the road have contributed to historic air pollution in Colorado. Anyone remember the brown cloud? Cars and buses that are fueled by traditional gas and diesel fuels emit hazardous greenhouse gases, especially carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane gases. RTD reports owning nearly 1000 buses, with annual diesel fuel use of 5.214 million gallons. While moderate levels of greenhouse gases can be manageable, the transportation trends in the state have led to exorbitant and dangerous emission levels.

According to a study conducted in 2018 by the Denver Regional Council of Governments, the number of cars on the roads in the Front Range area have soared with average vehicle miles traveled by cars reaching 84.3 miles per car per day, which reflected a 15 percent increase from just five years earlier. These numbers are predicted to grow. State transportation systems have also been unable to manage the growth, which has further exacerbated pollution rates via congestion.
Colorado has failed to manage the increased growth. CDOT has engaged in construction projects, such as the I-70 expansion. Experts have criticized the I-70 project by pointing to data suggesting that adding more lanes increases the cars on the roads and maintains congestion levels. Additionally, many communities – specifically in Denver’s District 9 – have complained that the projects has been highly disruptive, and is splitting neighborhoods and displacing residents.
CDOT also attempted to alleviate traffic congestion by expanding the routes and stations of its bus and light rail systems. Despite these efforts, the volume of passengers on public transit has been declining in recent years, presumably in response to inadequate route planning and increasing costs; until recently, Denver had the nation’s highest transit cost.


Oil and Gas Pollution


The frequency of drilling activities and the operations of oil companies are also contributing to our environmental problems. Expansive subsurface minerals make Colorado very appealing to extraction companies. A historically pliant CO political class has enabled the industry’s expansion. Data from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) verifies that Colorado has among the largest reserves in the country. We’re the 5th largest oil producing state with the 6th largest natural gas reserves, the 8th largest coal reserves, and the most coalbed methane reserves of any state. Drilling activities were rampant in Colorado in the 20th century, but recent decades have seen increased operations with the new extraction technique known as fracking, or hydraulic fracturing.

As a result of the advances, according to the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the amount of active wells and drilling sites has steadily risen since the year 2000, and between 2017-2018 the state experienced a whopping 70 percent increase in drilling applications. The state has approximately 60,000 currently active wells and 20,000 additional wells that have been recently abandoned.

Statistics also specify the most common locations of these wells. Over half of all Colorado wells are located in the Weld County region, stretching from the North Denver metro area to the Wyoming border. Though 191 separate oil and gas operators are in Colorado, the majority of drilling activities are facilitated by a handful of companies. Just eight companies account for about 81 percent of all oil and gas production, with the largest being Noble Energy, PDC Energy, Occidental Petroleum, and Extraction O&G.

Supporters of oil and gas promote the benefits the industry provides. They emphasize lucrative jobs, energy services, and tax revenue paid to local and state governments. The facts underlying these claims are reasonable on the surface. The petroleum industry in CO employees about 90,000 workers (out of over 3 million), and every year the industry generates about $13.5 billion (out of nearly $350 billion) in economic activities and contributes around $1 billion to local and state taxes.

“Oil and natural gas is a a fundamental building block that exists in countless products we all use, from medical supplies and construction materials to smartphones and clothing,” says Jake Taylor, Communications Coordinator of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which serves as the primary political and regulatory voice for the industry in CO.

Environmental advocates counter that modern technology can and should replace many of these services, and that the benefits provided by the industry are outweighed by the destructive impact extraction activities have on the environment and, by extension, the likelihood of human survival on earth. Pollution is exacts severe consequences at the local, state, and global levels.


The Local Consequences: Residents Health


Studies have shown that air pollution is harmful to humans and community life. One study showed the health risks incurred by people who live near wells sites. Conducted by ICF International (Oct. 2019), the report analyzed the overall impact of oil and gas operations on residents. The researchers concluded that residents living within 2,000 feet of drilling locations are vulnerable to respiratory problems, headaches, dizziness, nosebleeds, and nausea. This is largely due to hazardous chemicals released into the air, including benzene, ethylbenzene and toluene.

Another study conducted by the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center (2012) showed residents living near well sites are also at a disproportionately higher risk of developing cancer.

National studies also illustrate the health impacts. Research from over 150 studies, for example, demonstrated that the pollution generated by fracking can render residents susceptible to birth defects, respiratory disorders, neurological problems, reproductive deficiencies, blood disorders, asthma conditions, and developmental impairments.

This body of research has indicated that people living close to well sites have an increased risk of minor and short-term health impacts as well as severe and long-term conditions. With Colorado having a modest setback requirement of only 500 feet from homes and 1,000 feet from schools, many residents express legitimate and well founded concerns.


Statewide Consequences: the Brown Cloud


The brown cloud hovering over the Front Range area is another detrimental consequence of the pollution in the air.
[Editor’s note: for a longer conversation on the Colorado Brown Cloud and air pollution, see Deb Cameron’s piece page 53.]

According to the American Lung Association, this ozone problem establishes the Denver and northern Front Range area as one of the most polluted metropolitan regions in the country, only ranking behind New York, Houston, Phoenix, and the major California cities.


The Global Consequences: Approaching Climate Change Catastrophe

The global climate crisis is the large-scale consequence of environmental inaction, a fact agreed on by the global scientific community. Climate change is caused by human behavior, especially industrial activities, oil drilling, and vehicles; a viral study found that over 70 percent of climate change was caused by just 100 companies – 99 are oil and gas companies.

We are already experiencing the impacts of climate change, including melting ice glaciers, rising ocean levels, and submerging coastal cities. This is also leading to the ensuing hazards of destroyed ecosystems, extreme weather, extensive droughts, and unprecedented storms. Collectively, this is known as climate catastrophe.
Overwhelming scientific evidence suggests that climate change will be irreversible by 2030. The two most essential methods by which Colorado can help alleviate the climate change crisis is to reduce the emissions from vehicles and the pollution from drilling.

Even the oil and gas industry emphasizes the need to address climate change concerns. “One would be hard-pressed to find an industry that employs more environmental management experts than the oil and natural gas industry,” Taylor points out.

It should be pointed out that, historically, when industry research emerges that counters industry claims, it is suppressed. See Exxon. Arguably, non-industry scientists should have full access to industry based science for peer review.

With environmental issues being crucial to Coloradans, Polis campaigned as an environmental progressive. So let’s take a look at the solutions he has proposed and policies he has implemented during his first year in the office of the Governor.


Increasing Electric Cars to Improve Air Quality


Implementing the Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) program was one of the first actions Gov. Polis took upon entering office. In January of 2019, Polis signed an executive order that established Colorado as a Zero Emission Vehicle state. The program aims to reduce carbon emissions released from Colorado vehicles by increasing the number of electric cars sold in dealerships and by diversifying the electric models that are available.

The amount of electric cars offered by dealerships has been severely limited by Colorado not being a ZEV state. ZEV states require auto dealers to ensure that a specific proportion of vehicles offered on their lots are electric. This compels manufacturers to send electric cars to ZEV states to meet the requirements. Polis hopes this can have a substantial impact on emissions levels, as the plan aims to reduce emissions by 50 percent by 2030 and 90 percent by 2050.

Increasing the number of electric cars that are available can also be advantageous for the state. While Colorado only had about 24,000 registered electric vehicles as of July 2019, the ZEV program aims to have 130,000 registered electric vehicles by 2030. Despite having far less electric cars and models available than many other states, Colorado actually ranks fourth in the nation for percentage of electric vehicle purchases, according to statistics from EVAdoption.


Using Renewable Energy to Protect the Environment


With Gov. Polis campaigning on a plan to have Colorado use 100 percent renewable energy by 2040, it’s important to assess the actions that he has taken to help reach that mark. Investing in renewable energy can influence the renewable adoption rate.

Currently renewable energy sources constitute a relatively small portion of electricity generated. Wind is the most effective source of renewable energy for Colorado. The state has substantial wind resources on the eastern plains and the mountains to the west. Currently 79 percent of Colorado’s renewable electricity derives from wind technologies, the use of wind turbines has tripled since 2010, and now Colorado’s 2,275 wind turbines establish us as the 8th-ranked state in the nation for wind power capacity. The state can also capitalize on solar, as Colorado currently ranks 12th in the nation for solar power capacity with 1,300 megawatts already installed.

Certain programs implemented by Gov. Polis and policies passed by the state legislature can help amplify the use of renewable energy throughout the state. The governor is offering an array of financial rebates and tax incentives that encourage homeowners and businesses to install solar panels, including deals to entice the use of community solar gardens in which one centralized solar source can generate electricity for several homes in the area. The state also recently negotiated a pioneering agreement with the US Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to streamline the licensing process that would convert existing infrastructure into hydropower facilities. Furthermore, in January of 2020 the governor formed two pilot programs that can help the beer and cannabis industries become more energy-efficient and renewable-dependant.

Gov. Polis also worked with the statehouse in 2019 to pass a renewable friendly budget. The budget passed for fiscal year 2020 designated $3 million for renewable investments, such as modernizing the electrical grid, funding renewable technology projects, and enhancing infrastructure capabilities for solar and wind energy sources. Other bills signed by the governor also serve to support renewable energy and alleviate environmental pollution.

HB 1003 expanded the access and availability of community solar gardens, HB 1231 established new energy efficiency standards for plumbing appliances, HB 1260 developed new energy efficiency codes for buildings, and SB 236 intensified the requirements for regulating the carbon emissions of electrical utility companies. Additionally, HB 1272 allows owners of commercial buildings or residential complexes to receive financial assistance when they renovate the electrical systems of their buildings to improve the energy standards on their properties.


Oil and Gas Regulations: The Mixed Response to SB 181


The most pivotal piece of legislation of the 2019 legislative session was also the most controversial. SB 181 is a massive omnibus bill that modifies and overhauls the regulatory standards for the oil and gas industry and gives unprecedented new local controls to local governments. The bill was received with a mixture of praise and criticism from people on both the environmental and industry sides of the issue.

Many groups that advocate for the oil and gas industry lament that the bill is too extreme and could impair the ability for the industry to operate in Colorado.
“One of the reasons our industry opposed SB 181 is because of the patchwork of regulations it would incentivize, which we are now seeing take place,” explains Taylor. “Companies of all types prefer consistency and predictability, and regulatory efforts that are constant moving targets between local and state government agencies can lead to confusion.”

In contrast, some environmental groups are concerned with critical limitations and the long delay to implementation diminishing its intended effects. For example, because the bill cannot be implemented until the rulemaking stage is complete, and that extensive process is expected to be finished during the summer of 2020, hundreds of wells have been pushed through, often with a rush, to ensure they are permitted by the state under current, industry friendly, rules. To evaluate the potential impact of SB 181, it can help to elaborate on the strengths and weaknesses of the consequential legislation.


Strengths of SB 181


Some policies incorporated into SB 181 have been applauded by environmental advocates. One fundamental change involves the role that the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) fulfills. The previous policy specified that the role of the COGCC was to “foster” oil and gas development, which implied that the agency functioned to support the industry. SB 181 made a subtle but important change. Instead of “foster,” the bill states that the role of the COGCC is now to “regulate” oil and gas development, which implies that the agency functions to manage the complex operations of the oil industry according to established state and federal rules and to decrease excessive pollution resulting from drilling activities. Arguably, the bill now compels the agency to focus on promoting the health, safety and wellbeing of the public. Additionally, SB 181 dramatically changed the structure of the COGCC board. The board previously consisted of 9 members with 3 from the oil and gas industry, but the bill reduces the board to just 5 members with only one from the industry.

The bill also modifies the responsibilities of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). The bill empowers the Air Pollution Control Division to enact more effective emission requirements and to impose fees on heavy polluters. Reporting standards have also been improved by SB 181. Whereas the CDPHE previously only collected and reported information regarding greenhouse gas emissions every four years, the bill now requires the agency to compile data and file reports every year. Furthermore, the bill magnified the ability for the CDPHE to enforce strict emission standards, monitor air pollution levels, and collect climate change data.

The increased local control over the oil and gas industry is perhaps the most appealing part of the bill for many communities. Previously local governments had very little influence over the details of the permitting process and were generally required to accept the decisions of the commission. SB 181 grants local governments greater authority to approve, regulate, and monitor the oil and gas companies trying to operate in their communities. The local control and land use authority granted by the bill require the companies to first receive approval from the local government before they can apply for the permits from the state commission. During the review process, the local governments can have a significant impact on drilling sites, well locations, and setback requirements.

Local governments can also establish emission standards, implement monitoring programs, and impose fees for the inspection process and fines for any leaks or spills. Another new power granted to local governments is the ability to establish official noise limits that the drilling companies must accommodate. Thus, many communities are hopeful that, once the rules are finally enacted and the law goes into effect, SB 181 provides their local governments with the necessary authority to ensure the health and safety of their communities.



The Weaknesses of SB 181


Certain identified weaknesses with SB 181 have generated complaints from both the environmental and industry sides. Regarding the oil and gas industry, companies claim that the local control aspect of the bill enables communities to establish strict rules that can be prohibitive to their operations. Even though it has not been implemented yet, some oil and gas companies blame the overhaul of the regulatory process for the struggles that their businesses are facing. While some companies contend that SB 181 is responsible for their problems, Gov. Polis and many environmental advocates argue that the financial difficulties of the Colorado oil and gas industry are caused by natural market forces and intense foreign competition.

Environmental advocates also criticize the scope of the bill. Some point out that it is not ambitious enough to solve our environmental issues and that the policies will not provide the substantial reduction in drilling that the state – and earth – requires. For example, shortly after SB 181 was signed, oil and gas companies in Colorado – including Noble Energy, O&G Extraction, and PDC Energy – sent company memos to inform their investors that the bill will have a minimal impact on industry operations and that they should be able to maintain the same productivity.

The long delay to implementation has been especially frustrating for many environmental advocates. While finishing the rules process by the summer would already have been difficult, the Coronavirus pandemic has forced the board to pause discussions until the crisis subsides, a further delay.
Meanwhile, COGCC records show that during the delay an abundance of permits have been issued to build many new wells. Since Gov. Polis signed the bill almost one year ago, about 2,000 permits have been approved for additional wells and no permit applications have been denied. In turn, the permitting and drilling process has been continuing for the past year under the same flawed standards that SB 181 is supposed to reform.

In 2019, the industry shattered the previous oil production record in Colorado and enjoyed a 12 percent increase in overall production over the previous year. This encouraged the environmental group Colorado Rising to file a lawsuit against the COGCC to have the permitting process suspended until the rules are finalized. The lawsuit is still in progress, but the commission is not expected to suspend the permitting process and the industry should expect to continue to operate under the same favorable conditions.

The lack of official setback requirements in SB 181 also concerns many communities. With studies indicating that fracking and extraction activities present severe health hazards for people within 2,000 feet of operations, experts contend that the current Colorado setback standard of 500 feet is inadequate and that the state should establish a uniform distance requirement of about 2,000 feet. SB 181 leaves the setback standards to local governments.

Having local governments determine setback requirements creates problems for residents, depending on their local government’s commitment to health and safety. This will lead to piecemeal regulation and subject communities adjacent to more lax areas to the whims of those officials and the winds that blow pollution across legal boundaries.

Industry advocates often resist the concept of setback requirements and refute the claims that drilling is harmful to communities. “Colorado’s oil and natural gas industry is safe,” says Taylor. “Our operators are committed to producing our resources cleaner, better and safer than anywhere in the country, utilizing cutting-edge technology and innovation alongside one of the toughest regulatory frameworks in the country.”

But environmental groups believe the research confirms that drilling near neighborhoods is harmful to residents and that SB 181 failed to address the setback requirement issue. Colorado Rising is attempting to address this flaw in the bill as well. For the past few election cycles, the organization has placed initiatives on the ballots to propose statewide setback requirements but have not yet been able to pass the requirements. In the 2018 cycle, Prop 112 sought to establish a setback requirement of 2,500 feet, but it was defeated by a 45-55 percent margin. With SB 181 failing to address the setback requirement issue, Colorado Rising plans on placing another statewide setback measure on the ballot in the upcoming election cycle.


Final Thoughts


Because many factors contribute to the environmental conditions and health standards of Colorado, it is helpful to identify the problems that confront the state and the solutions that our lawmakers propose. The primary factors causing air pollution in the state include vehicle exhaust and the drilling activities of oil and gas companies. With Gov. Polis campaigning to address environmental concerns in the state, residents must remain engaged by keeping track of the successes and failures of his environmental record and initiatives. Establishing the Zero Emission Vehicle program should be advantageous in moving towards a cleaner air environment in Colorado. His investments into renewable energy could substantially improve the ability of the state to reach his ideal target of becoming 100 percent renewable by 2040, going a long way toward reducing or dependence on gas and, thus, our unwillingness to seriously regulate oil and gas, up to and including a full ban on extraction and drilling.

The oil and gas issue, however, is very contentious. The state needs to encourage completion of the rulemaking process so local communities can make full use of the powers they were given by this legislation. Anything less diminishes the accomplishment and is viewed as the state delaying completion to ensure drilling levels are maintained and the industry is happy, at the expense of communities. Currently the Gov. Polis administration and his signature SB 181 bill have not significantly altered the excessive rate at which oil and gas companies are receiving permits from the state and building wells in our communities. Supporters remain hopeful that the implementation of SB 181 and the increased control of local governments can reduce the amount of drilling that occurs in the state, improve the quality of the air that we breathe, and maximize the safety of our communities and the health of our residents. For all these reasons and more, we feel that Governor Polis has done much for the environment – thought mostly in word.


Will the deeds ever be accomplished?


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