Thursday, June 28, 2007

Oil Shale Not?

The idea of oil shale in western Colorado sounds appealing and all. The way industry is talking they can extract it without creating open pit mines and plus we need all that petroleum anyway, right?

But wait a minute. It seems that to fuel any oil shale development, industry will need monstrous amounts of power, like three times the amount of electricity used by the state of Colorado in 2005. And where is this power going to come from? Well, if the past is any indication in western Colorado, it's likely going to come from more coal burning.

The list of harmful crap spewed from coal burning includes mercury, dioxins, sulfur dioxide, hydrochloric acid, nitrogen oxides, and lead. Just look at all the toxic pollutants released from Xcel's coal burning Cherokee Power Plant in Denver.

The way oil shale is shaping up it's looking like we're going to be squeezing blood from a turnip here. Talk about a waste of resources, energy, and human life.

In the words of one doctor, "The new power plants needed for oil shale production would exact public health consequences that would seriously undermine any benefit from oil- shale projects.”

Monday, June 25, 2007

Only Halfway?

The EPA finally proposed its revised health standards for ozone last Thursday, announcing it would lower the standard from 0.080 parts per million to between 0.070 and 0.075 parts per million (or 70-75 parts per billion). Ozone is the main ingredient of smog and poses a myriad of terrible health effects.

Okay, for all your folks out there who think public health advocates are too cynical all the time, we have one thing to say:

Hooray (cough)!

All right, we're sorry. We couldn't pull off a non-cynical response and had to insert a "cough." But there is a good reason, we swear, and it's not because we're cynical, we also swear!

As we discussed on our Denver Ozone blog (which all non-Denver metroites are free to carouse), the EPA really only went halfway in terms of a new ozone standard. Remember, all the health science supports an ozone standard of 60 parts per billion. The EPA's proposed standard is 20% weaker than this.

And when it comes to our health, why would we only go halfway? Should we just be happy that one of our lungs might be safe? What about those with only one lung? Have you ever heard of a doctor being happy with halfway curing a patient?

There is good news though. As the Denver Post showed us today, we're not alone in calling on the EPA to protect our health.

Of course, industry is worried over the prospect of having to do more to keep us safe from air pollution.

In Colorado Springs, which would be in violation of the EPA's proposed standard, the coal burning power plants are already pointing the finger. According to Colorado Springs Utilities, their emissions aren't the problem. Right. In virtually every other part of the United States, coal burning power plants have been required to cut their emissions to keep smog in check. In fact, according to industry's own data, coal burning power plants in Colorado Springs emit over twice as much smog forming pollution as power plants back east.

In the rest of the state, the oil and gas industry is on edge, shuddering at the thought of having to do more to keep people safe from their air pollution. This is surprising, in a way. Did you know that, unlike other industries, controlling smog forming pollution from the oil and gas industry means recovering methane (i.e., valuable product)? In fact, there are dozens of control options available that both reduce smog forming pollution and can yield a payback for industry.

So what will the future yield? For sure, we're on track for cleaner, healthier air here in the Rockies. But we'll need to fight for it. Cynicism aside, the reality is that industry is simply too focused on its own profits to keep us all safe from air pollution.

We'll overcome this though, just you wait (see, we're not as cynical as you thought after all)!

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Will EPA Keep us Safe from Smog?

This is it, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is set to formally announce its proposed new ozone standard early tomorrow . Reports indicate the agency is going to propose a standard that limits ozone to no more than 70-75 parts per billion over an eight hour period.

The agency was under court order to propose a new standard today, but proposing a new standard and releasing it to the public must be two different things.

In any event, if the EPA proposes a standard that's above 70 parts per billion, that will be around 12% stronger than the current standard of 80 parts per billion. However, it will be about 20% weaker than the 60 parts per billion standard that hundreds of scientists, doctors, and the EPA's own clean air advisers have recommended.

So is the EPA playing politics with our health? Well, representatives of various polluters, including the chemical industry, electric utilities, and the auto industry met with the White House on June 11 and June 12 to discuss the new ozone standards. As far as we're aware, no public health group has received such an audience. Ozone forms when pollution from smokestacks, tailpipes, and oil and gas wells react with sunlight, so industry will be forced to make significant pollution cuts.

But what's really at stake here? Well, this is about keeping us safe. When doctors say that ozone pollution needs to be limited to no more than 60 parts per billion over an eight hour period, that's advice that we take pretty seriously. And this advice sheds light on what seems to us a serious health crisis here in the Rocky Mountain region.

If the ozone standard was dropped to 60 parts per billion, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming would be dealing with numerous "dirty air" areas. What this means is that these states would be forced to significantly cut pollution, in some areas for the first time ever. Here's a brief summary of the situation if ozone standards were dropped to 60 parts per billion:
  • Colorado: Colorado Springs, Mesa Verde National Park, and Rocky Mountain National Park would all be in violation of the standard.
  • New Mexico: Albuquerque and all of Bernalillo County, Dona Ana County, Carlsbad and Eddy County, Hobbs and Lea County, Sandoval County, and all of San Juan County.
  • Utah: Box Elder County, Logan, Bountiful, Salt Lake City, Canyonlands National Park, Provo, Highland, Zion National Park, and Ogden would all be in violation of the standard.
  • Wyoming: Campbell County and Yellowstone National Park would be in violation. Sublette County would likely be in violation after 2007.

Even if the standard was 70 parts per billion, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, and, after 2007, even Wyoming will be dealing with "dirty air" areas. Of the bunch, only Colorado has ever violated the current standard, and that has been in the Denver metro area.

Importantly, any new ozone standard should be a wake up call for the west. Our air quality needs to be improved, dramatically, to keep rural and urban communities alike safe from pollution. This will be a paradigm shift for the west, which has long thought of its air as pure and clean.

It may be that our air in the west is dirtier than we ever thought. Whatever the EPA ultimately decides, this should be a strong motivation for states like Colorado to get moving to reduce ozone and keep us all safe and healthy.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Let's Move Past the Rhetoric

Is gas drilling affecting health? Seriously, why are we still asking this question?

Donna Gray with the Glenwood Springs Post Independent and others have done a bang up job of tackling the issue of oil and gas drilling in western Colorado. However, Donna and others are not moving us past the rhetoric when it comes to tackling the health impacts of gas drilling, especially from air pollution.

Today's story in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent is case in point. While the stories of Dee Hoffmeister and Beth Dardynski (a stellar member of Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action!) speak for themselves the grim reality that gas drilling is making people ill, the reporter actually never comes out and cements the connection. Is gas drilling affecting health? It's reported as a rhetorical question, but there's really no rhetoric about it.

The reality is that we know gas drilling is affecting public health. Come on, let's look at one clear example.

Take benzene, a hydrocarbon that is known to cause leukemia and can lead to drowsiness, dizziness, and headaches. Benzene is part of the hydrocarbons--including natural gas and condensate--sucked up from the ground and is also a byproduct of engine combustion.

According to the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division, oil and gas developments in Garfield County release over 354,000 pounds of benzene annually, more than all other sources--including cars and trucks--combined. Much of this is released from wells that are near people's homes, especially

Hmmm. So in Garfield County, there are increased reports of "dizziness" and "headaches" and the oil and gas industry spews more benzene into the air than any other source and benzene is linked to cancer, dizziness, drowsiness, and headaches. We feel pretty justified and reasoned in saying the oil and gas industry is poisoning the residents of western Colorado.

Keep in mind, this is just looking at benzene. According to the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division, the oil and gas industry is also a major source of other toxic pollutants, like toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and formaldehyde, in Garfield County. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to make the connection here.

Come on folks, let's move past the rhetoric here and into reality. We need stop asking whether gas drilling is affecting health and start answering the question, "Why isn't the gas industry protecting health?"

Friday, June 08, 2007

Drill, Drill, Drill

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission is slated to approve another record number of drilling permits this year.

Unlike most records though, this certainly isn't one to tout. Record drilling has already led to record levels of air pollution, both in the Denver metro area and in western Colorado. More record drilling means Colorado is likely to endure yet another year of record air pollution, especially in western Colorado.

According to the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Garfield County, the epicenter of the latest oil and gas boom here in Colorado, is slated to take the brunt of most of this drilling. Brian Macke, the Director of the Commission, even calls western Colorado a "world-class gas play."

Western Colorado is known to be world class in a lot of ways; its ski areas, its wilderness, its rivers, its scenery, its people. But, with rising air pollution and declining health, a world class gas play seems the last thing western Colorado should be known for.

While Brian Macke may be proud of western Colorado's "world-class gas play," for those hoping for a safe and healthy future, this is nothing to be proud about. Until the oil and gas industry takes significant steps to keep people safe and air pollution in check, the "world-class gas play" will only be a black mark for western Colorado.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Xcel Getting a Blank Check for Polluting our Air?

Xcel Energy's proposal to reduce haze-forming pollution from six of its coal burning power plants here in Colorado is now open for public comment.

The proposals, called "Best Available Retrofit Technology," (affectionately known as BART) are meant to protect pristine and remote wilderness landscapes here in Colorado from old, dirty coal burning power plants. The idea is to require older power plants to upgrade their pollution controls and significantly reduce nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide to protect visibility in wilderness areas and National Parks. Xcel is proposing to amend its air pollution permits to incorporate "Best Available Retrofit Technology."

Sadly, Xcel's proposal is, in many ways, a ruse. Here's a few highlights:

  • The permits actually allow an increase of nearly 150 tons of sulfur dioxide from coal burning power plants in the Denver metro area.
  • The permit allows nitrogen oxide emissions to increase by over 300 tons from the Pawnee power plant in Morgan County.
  • The permits contain loopholes that exempt compliance with pollution limits during cold startups and malfunctions, basically giving Xcel a blank check for more air pollution.

And to top it all off, Xcel is proposing to enter into an "agreement" with the state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to adopt what can only be described as a weak BART proposal, at best.

This "agreement" is probably the most troublesome part of Xcel's proposal. What it amounts to is a settlement agreement meant to bring Xcel into compliance with BART. But like all settlements, there are compromises. For instance, it states that the Pawnee power plant is not subject to BART, when the state of Colorado has found otherwise. The "agreement" also allows Xcel to rely on other agreements in place of BART, yet those agreements are weaker than BART requirements.

The most troubling aspect is that the "agreement" was crafted with no public input. True, the "agreement" is open to public comment, but where were public health and environmental advocacy groups at the table? Where were citizens when the meat of this "agreement" was being fleshed out?

With citizens and advocates being left out of the process, the state of Colorado shouldn't be surprised when people get upset and frustrated at their decisions, especially when those decisions lead to more air pollution.

It also shouldn't be surprised when citizens and advocates take matters into their own hands and use the Clean Air Act to secure the clean air we deserve, as Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action often does and will likely do here with BART.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Even Oil and Gas Tycoons Get Asthma

Here's one from the weekend. Michael Smith, who "made his fortune in the oil and gas industry," is sinking millions into helping National Jewish Medical and Research Center build a new lab and clinic.

His reason? He has asthma.

Don't get us wrong, Michael Smith's investment is a wonderful opportunity for National Jewish and promises hope for those who suffer. He obviously knows firsthand what it is like to not just have asthma, but to have qualified physicians who know how to help. He should be commended for helping others have the same. But isn't this all so classic?

We spend so much in this country researching and treating illnesses after they happen, but so little in actually preventing them in the first place. Just take a look at asthma. All the research shows that ozone pollution, a burgeoning problem throughout the west, is linked to asthma attacks and might even cause asthma at high levels.

Yet how much money is actually going toward reducing ozone air pollution in the west? We'll tell you firsthand, it's not much. Not surprisingly, for places like Denver, ozone pollution is just getting worse.

But this isn't about how much money advocacy efforts should be receiving. In fact, while National Jewish requires millions just to treat asthma, advocacy groups like Rocky Mountain Clean Air Action need thousands at most. No, this is about priorities.

Preventing respiratory illnesses is just as important as treating them and what's more, it's usually a lot cheaper. Talk about a penny of prevention being worth a pound of cure, reducing air pollution is probably the best investment anyone who cares about respiratory health could ever make.

We need National Jewish there to provide the best respiratory treatment in the world, but we also need to clean up our air. Care to lend any support, Mr. Smith?