Though new drilling permits haven’t been granted in more than a decade, Boulder residents are feeling the effects of climate change
When the Boulder oil field was discovered by the Mckenzie oil well in 1901, it prompted a “black gold” rush. A thousand companies formed in the next three months, scrambling for mineral leases that would allow them to cash in.
At its peak in 1909, the McKenzie Well produced 86,000 barrels of oil each year. Drilling continued until 2007, when the well was plugged due to low production.
In Boulder County, just over 200 oil and gas drilling wells remain in use, though many have been plugged or abandoned, and no new applications for drilling permits have been submitted since the early 2000s.
But in the northeast, it’s a different story. Weld county is the top oil and gas producer in Colorado, with 17,317 active wells as of Sept. 1, and Boulder County air monitoring shows the emissions from those drilling sites blow into Boulder County, affecting local air quality.
Colorado ranks fifth in the United States for overall oil and gas activity, with the majority of extraction occurring in Weld, Garfield, La Plata, Mesa and Rio Blanco counties. Though oil and gas extraction brings revenue for the counties, it also creates environmental and public health concerns for residents.
“When the winds come from the northeast to the county, that’s when those emissions are higher at [the Boulder reservoir] monitoring site, and there’s a huge impact to our air quality,” said Cindy Copeland, air and climate policy advisor at Boulder County Commissioners’ Office.
Boulder County is challenging oil and gas production and their consequences — from legal action to lobbying for stronger statewide regulations to nature-based climate adaptations. But past emissions and pollutants from other parts of the country are intensifying climate change impacts in Boulder, complicating the county’s goals.
“We have the climate impacts, that’s a global thing, but we try to do as much as we can, the county, to reduce our emissions, to try to help make a difference,” Copeland said.
CLIMATE CHANGE IN COLORADO
Midmorning on Dec. 30, 2021, a grass fire sparked in southeast Boulder County. Winds were dry and warm, spreading the Marshall Fire more than 6,000 acres through densely-packed neighborhoods in Boulder, Louisville and Superior.
The fire caused $2 billion worth of damage — the most destructive fire Colorado had ever seen.
Less than two years later, Coloradans witnessed skies thick with smoke from wildfires burning in western Canada. At the time, Colorado’s air quality was one of the worst in the world.
Climate change has made western North America hotter and dryer, creating a tinder box for more frequent, more intense wildfires. Climate change and its contributing factors can also increase heat and air-quality related health impacts and displace wildlife.
Oil and gas are some of the biggest contributors to atmospheric warming in Boulder. Fossil fuel extraction and burning release greenhouse gasses and air pollutants that trap heat in the atmosphere and can be harmful when breathed in at high levels.
Health professionals are worried about the impacts of climate change and air pollution on human health, especially for those living near drilling sites, said Barbara Donachy, a Colorado Physicians for Social Responsibility board member.
PSR advocates for reduced oil production across the country, pointing to heat-related illness, chronic respiratory problems and nervous system damage linked to air pollution exposure and climate change as causes for concern.
“It should have been phased out a long, long time ago and the price we’re paying for greenhouse gas emissions is tremendous,” Donachy said. “There is a direct relationship between the health impacts that are quite substantial and are of great concern.”
Coloradans’ health is particularly affected by ground level ozone, an air pollutant that exacerbates asthma and other respiratory illnesses, and is formed from drilling emissions like benzene mixing with oxidized nitrogen on sunny, warm days. In Boulder, air quality often exceeds the Environmental Protection Agency’s ozone safety standards.
The Colorado Energy and Carbon Management Commission, the state’s oil and gas regulation agency, has received hundreds of public comments concerned about the cumulative impacts of oil and gas operations on health and the environment, but state actions to address those concerns haven’t followed, Denver7 reported in October.
Even when oil wells have been abandoned, they can leak carcinogens, greenhouse gasses and other toxic air contaminants. Wells are often abandoned because they are no longer economically viable, allowing the drilling company to file for bankruptcy, and use that money to then begin new drilling projects.
Colorado has about 50,0000 unplugged oil and gas wells and the estimated cost of cleaning up those wells stands at about $4.6 billion. There are plans to make oil and gas companies pay into a Bureau of Land Management fund that pays for remediating unplugged wells, but the financial burden currently falls to Colorado taxpayers.
Conditions stemming from poor air quality can be compounded by extreme heat, putting people at higher risk for hospitalization, Donachy said. Children and pregnant women are particularly vulnerable.
Heat waves in Colorado are expected to jump from 10 per year to 50 by 2050, according to States At Risk, which tracks states’ preparedness against climate threats.
“Heat is going to become an increasingly serious problem for people who are vulnerable,” Donachy said.
LOCAL ACTION AGAINST GLOBAL PROBLEMS
Oil and gas drilling is regulated by a combination of local, state and federal laws, but with more regulatory powers shifting to local governments, Boulder County has not seen an application for permits to drill in over a decade — though this has incited problems of its own.
Boulder has more authority over new oil and gas drilling in the county and imposing fines on existing drilling for leaks, spills and emissions since Colorado Senate Bill 19-181 passed in 2019. The bill also asked different agencies to more thoroughly assess the public health and air quality impacts of new drilling projects.
“The impacts on residents, the impacts on our air quality, public health effects, there’s a whole list of impacts that we would be concerned with, and so our goal on the regulatory side is to really regulate those as thoroughly as possible,” said Kim Sanchez, deputy director for Boulder Community Planning & Permitting.
But Boulder’s tougher stance against fracking has incited legal pushback, including a 2017 lawsuit filed by the state that led the Colorado Supreme Court to strike down Boulder’s fracking moratorium, which was in effect from 2013 to 2021.
The most recent battle over oil and gas drilling in Boulder ended on May 1, when Extraction Oil & Gas, Inc indefinitely paused plans to drill in the Blue Paintbrush well pad in Weld County after five years of pursuing a permit. The project included plans to drill down in Weld County, then drill east under Boulder County.
Extraction expected to start drilling in 2022, after it invoked a “forced pooling” order that would have given Extraction access to the county’s minerals despite the Board of County Commissioners rejecting the initial lease offer.
Continued objection from the County that Extraction did not have the mineral rights to drill prompted a hearing before the Colorado Energy and Carbon Management Commission. Extraction’s decision came a few weeks before the hearing would have been held.
Though Extraction could later pursue drilling projects in the Blue Paintbrush, the pause is a temporary win for Boulder Open Space, public health and the Boulder community, said Kate Burke, senior assistant county attorney for Boulder.
“I think our population of Boulder County has this deep connection at a human level, to the natural resources that are surrounding us,” said Tim Broderick, senior sustainability strategist with the Office of Sustainability, Climate Action, and Resilience (OSCAR). “It’s kind of baked into the DNA of what makes Boulder County, Boulder County.”
The county has set a goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2035. In 2021, Boulder produced approximately 1,500,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent, a 31.8% decline from 2005 levels. Of these emissions, 98% were from sectors that largely rely on fossil fuels, including electricity, transportation and natural gas, according to the Boulder Community GHG Emissions Data Dashboard.
“We’ve known for a very long time, we need to transition from fossil fuels,” Copeland said.
Boulder also implements a range of nature-based solutions aimed at capturing carbon emissions currently in the atmosphere, and providing a buffer from high heat and wildfire events, Broderick said.
This includes adding trees in urban areas to decrease heat, absorb carbon dioxide and protect against flooding; improving top soil conditions to combat dust storms, improve nutrient density and increase carbon capture in soil; and thinning forest cover so that fires don’t spread as quickly or extensively.
“We view the work of nature based solutions and climate action as one of the critical layers of how we solve this challenge of climate action and how you adapt to the new reality that is going to be our future,” Broderick said.
SETBACKS FROM THE STATE
In many ways, state and county regulations work in tandem, Sanchez said. Boulder County cooperated with the state to pass SB 19-181, and often participates in developing statewide legislation and public health studies around oil and gas.
But intense lobbying efforts from the oil and gas industry can defeat efforts to regulate fossil fuels. This was the case with the Protecting Communities From Air Pollution Act which was proposed last legislative session, Copeland said.
One of the goals of the legislation was to increase communication between the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment, which passes air regulations and issues air quality permits, and the Colorado Energy and Carbon Management Commission, which grants siting permits for oil and gas developments. By doing so, the bill’s proponents hoped to significantly decrease emissions from oil and gas projects.
Despite being presented by Democrat legislators to a Democrat governor administration, the Polis Administration didn’t support the legislation.
“That bill really got gutted,” Copeland said.
Between 2015 and 2019, the oil and gas lobby spent more than $4 billion to influence state-level elected officials in Colorado, according to a 2020 report from Common Cause — an organization focused on government accountability. The same report found 612 instances when companies paid a lobbyist to monitor or act on a piece of legislation related to oil and gas.
While Boulder County can decide local policy, state rules and regulations can prevent larger changes, like changes to public transportation, which is regulated at the state level.
“We’re trying to work within the system to do things, unfortunately, it’s frustrating for a lot of us who really believe in strong climate action that we have to take baby steps to get there,” Copeland said.
BOULDER’S STAND IN COURT
In July 1977, a senior company scientist named James F. Black presented Exxon Corporation’s Management Committee with an alarming fact: the fossil fuels that Exxon produced and sold were warming the planet, at the threat to humanity’s survival.
In the 1980s, Exxon conducted their own rigorous research into carbon dioxide’s impact on the planet, finding the same result.
Exxon knew that fossil fuels were threatening the planet, and intentionally altered people’s perception of the risk of burning fossil fuels, proliferating harm to people and communities across the world.
That’s the basis of a 2018 lawsuit filed by Boulder County, the City of Boulder and San Miguel County against multinational fossil fuel corporations Exxon Mobil and Suncor Inc.
The suit argues that Exxon and Suncor, having drilled for oil in Colorado and contributed to the global climate crisis, harmed resident’s property, safety, health and welfare. The companies must pay their share of current and future damages that Boulder is experiencing because of climate change, said Marco Simons, general counsel at Earthrights International, which represents the Colorado communities in the lawsuit.
“The folks who knowingly and intentionally contributed to this problem, the climate crisis, and did so at great benefit and profit, should bear at least some of the responsibility for those injuries,” Simons said
The case is currently awaiting a decision from the courts regarding two motions to dismiss the case, filed by Exxon and Suncor in 2019.
The case was remanded back to Colorado state court in 2020 after Exxon and Suncor attempted to move the case to federal court, placing the case back in a venue where a jury of those who are harmed by the companies’ actions are involved in the trial.
Burke presumes that Boulder County would use any money from the lawsuit for climate resiliency efforts, but with the litigation pending, no specific decisions have been made.
The lawsuit invokes tort law, a legal principle that has been present in civil lawsuits since the 19th century, and involves making one party remedy harms they inflicted upon another party.
This is similar to lawsuits brought against the pharmaceutical industry and tobacco companies, which operated on a public nuisance claim in which governments claim harm done to the public by a company’s tortious conduct, Simons said.
Several dozen other lawsuits filed by local governments across the U.S. bring a similar argument against oil and gas companies, exhibiting a new phase of addressing climate change through litigation, the Guardian reported.
“This is a novel application of tort law, because it hasn’t been used specifically around climate change injuries,” Simons said, “But that happens all the time in the law. New things come up and the fundamental principles of tort law that have been with us for hundreds of years adapt to new facts.”
Besides requiring the companies to pay for damages, the lawsuit would not prevent further drilling activity or change any regulations around oil and gas in Colorado.
The lawsuit is important for Colorado residents because it means their taxpayer dollars would not have to pay entirely for the climate mitigation and adaptation efforts their counties are undertaking to address local impacts of climate change, Simons said.
The lawsuit is just one part of the effort Boulder is making to address climate change in the county, but it’s an important piece because it has the potential to fund actions that would help protect residents from future climate disasters and remedy some of the damage that’s already been done, Burke said.
“Responding to the climate crisis is a major priority in Boulder County, on all fronts,” Burke said. “Reducing climate harming emissions, dealing with the actual effects, being more resilient for floods and fires. [The lawsuit is] just part and parcel of our interest in addressing these issues.”