Oil and gas extraction is producing serious air quality problems for rural counties in Utah and Colorado that previously managed to avoid pollutants more commonly associated with bigger cities, according to the latest edition of the American Lung Association’s annual State of the Air Report.
In the latest report, “La Plata County in Colorado and Duchesne and Uintah counties in Utah all received an ‘F’ grade due to high levels of ozone,” writes Dan Grossman, national director of state oil and gas programs with the U.S. Environmental Defense Fund. “None has a population over 60,000 people, but each is home to significant amounts of oil and gas production.”
Grossman notes that this isn’t the first time rural communities with fossil operations have seen high levels of smog that can increase residents’ likelihood of developing asthma, respiratory disease, or other problems. The question is what governments will do about it. “Standards from the [federal] Bureau of Land Management, which would reduce methane and other smog-forming emissions from oil and gas facilities on public lands, are in the process of being weakened,” he writes, “and efforts to reduce smog-forming pollution at the state level are uncertain.”
In Wyoming, new standards enacted by Republican Gov. Matt Mead have stabilized local air pollution, and “the economy and communities have continued to thrive”, Grossman says. But the state is about to bring 5,000 new oil and gas wells online in Converse County, an area that currently receives an “A” in the ALA’s clean air listings but could see its air quality degrade without state-wide controls.
Utah is working on a regulatory framework for emissions from oil and gas facilities, but “left out some key elements that would have made the rule significantly more effective,” he writes. The resulting local air quality is so poor at times that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency might even step in.
Colorado has had regulations to limit the industry’s emissions of methane and smog-producing ozone since 2014, but the benefits of the rule have not been felt in La Plata, the state’s southernmost county. “This could be attributed to the fact that emissions from heavy oil and gas activity in neighbouring New Mexico—which does not have strong clean air rules for oil and gas facilities—are increasing pollution levels in La Plata,” Grossman writes.