An oil well pumpjack is pictured against the backdrop of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains on June 5, 2020 in Weld County. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A sparsely attended Zoom meeting does not seem the likeliest place in which major shifts in Colorado’s future take place. However, in September, that is exactly where the state adopted first-in-the-nation rules to reduce air pollution and marked a new approach in how this state confronts its air quality problems. 

For years, Coloradans have suffered from worsening air pollution. Denver residents and visitors also experience the 10th most polluted city in the country for ozone emissions, according to 2020 data by the American Lung Association. 

Tracy Coppola

Our children suffer, too. Each summer, children in Colorado suffer 32,000 asthma attacks linked to the state’s large oil and gas industry.  

But despite the clear dangers, progress on reducing air pollution across the state has been slow. The oil and gas industry is a major contributor of greenhouse gases and air pollution – yet also holds vast power in the state. Such power plays have blocked Colorado from adopting tighter restrictions on its emissions. 

Thankfully, it’s not all doom and gloom. In the space of a Zoom meeting, Colorado’s air quality regulators began to modernize this undemocratic dynamic by approving a limit on pollution from old-fashioned gas-powered engines used in oil and gas development. This advances the state’s 2019 acknowledgement of its responsibility to regulate the oil and gas industry, and not cheerlead for it.  

Unsurprisingly, industry representatives went to work yet again, trying to persuade regulators that clean and healthy air for Coloradans is not worth the cost or effort. While the state eventually made some compromises – it decided against forcing oil and gas companies to swap their outdated engines in favor of cleaner electric engines – thankfully, regulators did not back down in forcing industrial polluters to reduce emissions. 

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This is an important, positive shift for our state. Colorado is now demanding tighter emission standards for gas-powered engines that help drill for oil and gas and move it through pipelines. These dirtier, older engines make up nearly 20% of oil and gas engines in the state and contribute disproportionately more carbon and other emissions. 

Carbon emissions find their way into almost every corner of Colorado. Even our national parks – areas that most people think of as relatively untouched and protected – suffer the consequences. These treasured and celebrated lands and surrounding communities are changing as we speak from the effects of emissions and the real impact of climate change. 

Colorado is already one of the fastest-warming states in the country, and higher temperatures will lead to even more severe droughts, heat waves, and wildfires, such as the devastating Cameron Peak fire. Shorter snow seasons also threaten Colorado’s thriving outdoor recreation economy. In Rocky Mountain National Park, climate change has doubled the rate that trees have died from drought, bark beetle infestations, and record-breaking wildfire. 

The damage also stems from nitrogen oxide emitted from oil and gas facilities, which penetrates deep into soil, surface waters, and plants, and has been contaminating fragile ecosystems like Rocky’s for decades. Nitrogen oxides also create ozone pollution and haze, plaguing community health and dimming landscapes.

For years, the whining of industry in this state has hampered real action that would return air quality to normal, safe levels, and reduce air pollution that fuels climate change. 

Back in 2016, a signature-gathering effort was launched to put measures on the ballot that would have allowed local communities to regulate nearby oil and gas developments, and prevent new oil and gas infrastructure and its dangerous emissions being developed within 2,500 feet of places such as schools and hospitals. In response, the oil and gas industry launched a $50 million ‘decline to sign’ PR campaign to slow the effort. 

Just a year later, the industry deployed an army of representatives to kill a bill that would have prevented oil and gas operations within just 1,000 feet of high-occupancy buildings such as schools.  Industry was back at it again in 2018, spending over $40 million to defeat Proposition 112.

However, there’s hope. On top of the new regulations recently adopted, Colorado regulators are poised to vote on a new setback rule on Nov. 6, and hearings for the state’s regional haze rule start on Nov. 19.  

If Colorado continues this new course in prioritizing clean air and forcing industries into replacing outdated technology and moving to cleaner alternatives, the benefits will be enormous for the state.  

Tracy Coppola of Denver is the Colorado program manager for the National Parks Conservation Association.

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Special to The Colorado Sun