Nov. 28–Findings from a study that attempted to isolate the impact of oil and gas development on overall air quality and ozone levels in Boulder County will be presented Wednesday in Longmont.
Boulder County commissioners, after being briefed last month on the study results, used the data to justify their stand against large-scale, multi-well horizontal drilling projects — recently marked by the county’s filing of three lawsuits against two oil and gas companies with drilling proposals in the county.
The Longmont Public Forum group of community activists is hosting Detlev Helmig, an associate research professor at the University of Colorado’sInstitute of Arctic and Alpine Research who led the study, to discuss his work.
Helmig’s presentation at Front Range Community College will be followed by a discussion on plans to take action to reduce the risk to air quality at Union Reservoir, beneath which Longmont City Council agreed to allow fracking and horizontal drilling as part of a $3 million deal with two oil and gas companies to end surface drilling in the city.
Helmig’s research — which centers on air quality samples taken continuously for 18 months at Boulder Reservoir — and its finding that winds from the northeast blow air high in ozone levels from heavily drilled Weld County into Boulder County have created concern among county leaders.
“One of the most striking conclusions of the research is how much we are all impacted by the oil and gas drilling occurring across the region, regardless of whether it’s in our particular jurisdiction,” Commissioner Elise Jones said. “… This highlights the critical need for statewide protections to safeguard public health. From ozone to carcinogenic toxins like benzene, we can’t solve our air quality challenges just at the local level — statewide action is necessary.”
Gordon Pierce and Jeremy Neustifter, with the Colorado Department of Public Health’s Air Pollution Control Division, pointed out that Colorado in 2014 became the first state in the nation to regulate thorough inspections of the emissions of hydrocarbons, including methane, from oil and gas facilities and that the rules were further tightened in 2017.
“For oil and gas development, fracking is just a short-term — days to a few weeks — event in the development of a well. (The public health department) continues to be interested in better quantifying how these emissions, as well as longer-term production emissions, impact air quality across the state,” Pierce said.
Because of its proximity to Weld County, Longmont is more likely to experience higher levels of methane, ethane — natural gas molecules associated specifically with drilling operations — and ozone than other Boulder County municipalities, Helmig said.
The ozone levels of the air containing emissions from Weld County drilling sites are higher than air coming from the more densely populated Denver area, the study found, and the Weld air “contributes significantly to exceedances of the ozone standard,” Helmig’s presentation to Boulder County commissioners noted.
“We’re living in a region here that has elevated levels of a number of pollutants, and they vary spatially. … From my understanding of how ozone behaves, if we had winds from the west all the time, we would have a much lower ozone average,” Helmig said in an interview.
The study was motivated by the Front Range exceeding the U.S. National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ozone since 2004. That threshold for ground-level ozone is currently 70 parts per billion.
Ensuing failure to reduce the levels across the state have “raised questions about which emission sources are contributing to the Front Range’s air quality concerns,” according to CU web page explaining the air quality study that also shows the Boulder Reservoir measurements in real time.
The study found the Boulder Reservoir site in 2018 saw the highest eight-hour average ozone level across the Front Range at 89 parts per billion, as of last month’s presentation by Helmig to commissioners.
Boulder County funded the study with $183,772 for 18 months of continuous air quality monitoring that ended in September.
The project to monitor the concentration of volatile organic compounds created specifically by oil and gas development at Boulder Reservoir is continuing with some funding from Earthworks, a nonprofit organization that, according to its website, is “dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development while promoting sustainable solutions.”
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