The Good, Bad and Ugly in Colorado’s New Fracking Air Emissions Rules
The state of Colorado made national headlines a few weeks ago because it adopted new air emissions rules around drilling and fracking. There’s good, bad and ugly in these new rules, and there’s some new hope for the future.
The Good News
Colorado’s new drilling and fracking air quality regulations will cut Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) emissions as well as methane emissions from oil and gas wells and facilities. VOCs lead to ozone and other air quality problems which cause asthma attacks and other health problems. And methane is a serious greenhouse gas that must be better addressed if our planet has any hope of controlling climate change.
The degree of the cut in both of these pollutants is debatable—somewhere between 20 - 40 percent—because the new regulations don’t require that all drilling companies comply, or that all facilities comply, and allow any company to ask for a waiver if the cost is deemed too onerous. But on the whole, any cut is better than no cut. Coloradans can breathe a little easier, for a little while.
The Bad News
Unfortunately, Colorado’s drilling and fracking landscape is not a zero-sum game because about 2,000 new wells are being drilled every year. These new regulations won’t slow down fracking one single bit and may actually help increase air pollution and climate change emissions. If you cut emissions by ~30 percent and drill more and more wells, pretty soon the total amount of emissions and pollution will come out even with where it is now and will get worse as more wells are drilled.
Colorado currently has 53,000 active wells and the industry predicts 50,000 more will be drilled in the next 30 years in addition to the redrilling and refracking of current active wells. With these new regulations in place, at about 70,000 total wells our air pollution will be the same as it is now; at 100,000 wells, our air pollution will be ~35 percent worse. By cutting emissions, but by not stopping drilling and fracking altogether, these new rules will lead to worse air pollution, increased climate change emissions, as well as our suburban landscapes being swarmed with well pads spewing cancer-causing chemicals in the air and on the ground.
The Ugly News
These new regulations may actually undermine local democracy and the necessary change in policy that needs to happen in Colorado. Over the past 18 months, local democracy has flourished in Colorado as voters supported fracking bans in Longmont, Boulder, Lafayette, Broomfield and Fort Collins. In fact, it is these election outcomes that forced industry to the negotiating table to support the new rules.
As one participant from the Environmental Defense Fund stated publicly: “The industry’s social license to do business is under attack in Colorado and the political dynamics made a strong negotiated settlement attractive.” In other words, even though the industry had spent over a million dollars fighting the local elections, they lost and so they cut a deal with the Governor and a few frack-happy environmental groups to try and save their asses.
By supporting this “attractive settlement,” these environmental groups’ efforts have now bolstered the social license of this polluting and climate-destroying industry. If your social license to do business is destroying the planet, shouldn’t that license be revoked? Instead, the deal could derail the ongoing forward movement of authentic, grassroots, political change supported by voters in Colorado cities with more than 400,000 citizens towards banning fracking and switching our economy away from fossil fuels.
In fact, in the past few weeks, a total of 12 statewide ballot initiatives have been proposed to further restrict drilling and fracking in Colorado. The backers of these initiatives run the gamut from local ad-hoc groups to large and influential organizations and individuals. And the war has begun as the oil and gas industry is already spending millions of dollars in Colorado on TV, radio and print advertising in an attempt to sway voters’ minds eight months before the election, and is poised to spend tens-of-millions more in what may become a vicious statewide battle over fracking.
This mad rush to drill and frack in Colorado was initially supported by two assumptions: 1) that natural gas has less greenhouse gas emissions than coal and thus is a “bridge fuel” to fight climate change, and 2) that American oil and gas makes us “energy independent.”
Both of these assumptions have been proven false.
First, Colorado and America is drilling, fracking, mining and producing more oil, gas and coal than ever before, and thus our overall production, burning, and exporting of climate change emitting fossil fuels is at its highest level in history. In fact, in 2013 Colorado produced more oil than at any time in history, and natural gas production is rising every year as fracking races across the landscape. Further, scientific studies about the use of natural gas as a “bridge fuel” have now completely undermined that argument—gas appears to be as bad or worse for the climate, and those partially controlled methane leaks are only part of the problem. Let’s face it: even British Petroleum has stated that oil and gas fracking will increase climate change emissions
Second, there’s no such thing as “American” fossil fuel energy and we’re not “energy independent” at all. Oil and gas that is produced in Colorado and the U.S. is wholly owned by international fossil fuel corporations that are borderless, soulless, and driven by one simple thing—short-term profits garnered at any social and environmental cost. When we develop fossil fuels in the U.S., we are simply increasing our dependence on this international predatory industry. Further, the mad rush to drill and frack in Colorado and across the U.S. is accompanied by an equally mad rush to build pipelines to get that oil and gas to the coast so it can be shipped overseas where the international oil and gas corporations can sell it for a higher price. Those corporations don’t fight with missiles and ground troops here in America; they fight with hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying, influencing elections, and polluting our democracy to make sure our 100 percent dependency on their product continues.
A couple environmental groups, the industry, and the Governor referred to Colorado’s new fracking air quality regulations as “ground breaking.” I disagreed because it appeared to me that the only thing breaking the ground will be the sound of 50,000 new drill rigs across our suburban landscapes as our air gets dirtier, our climate changes even more, and our democracy is further polluted.
I do see a path forward here that forges a new alliance so that these new fracking regulations are not bad or ugly, but are an important “first step.” The public and the environmental community in Colorado need to be working toward local and statewide bans and restrictions on the production and burning of fossil fuels as well as supporting a rapid switch toward renewable energy. That can only happen at the ballot box because our legislative and administrative process are completely polluted by oil and gas money.
Whether you’re in Colorado or elsewhere, and whether you’re with a small group or large, start local, get engaged and fight the fossil fuel industry at the ballot box. Win, lose or draw, it’s the right fight at the right moment in history.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
Gary Wockner, PhD, is an environmental advocate based in Fort Collins. Contact: email@example.com
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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