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State lawmakers announce package of bills to limit oil and gas operations on the Front Range

Dr. Nikita Habermehl, a Denver-area pediatrician, spoke about her experience treating children with health issues linked to poor air quality at a press conference on Thursday, February 22, 2024 announcing a package of bills that would regulate emissions.
Lucas Brady Woods
Dr. Nikita Habermehl, a Denver-area pediatrician, spoke about her experience treating children with health issues linked to poor air quality at a press conference on Thursday, February 22, 2024 announcing a package of bills that would regulate emissions.

Dr. Nikita Habermehl is a Denver-area pediatrician. Last summer, she treated one patient who stuck in her memory.

The patient, a young girl, was rushed to the ER with asthma so severe she couldn't breathe. Thankfully, she recovered, but Dr. Habermehl remembered the tears in her eyes and her parents fear as she struggled to take a breath.

"Too often in my emergency department, I treat children suffering from severe asthma attacks that can also be linked to higher levels of ozone and other pollutants in our air," Habermehl said at a press conference Thursday at the State Capitol announcing a new package of air-quality legislation. "Our children and our community in Colorado, our friends, our family, everybody deserves clean air to breathe."

The bills, backed by Democratic state lawmakers, would limit oil and gas production in areas of the Front Range with high air pollution . They propose reforming permitting and enforcement for fossil fuel operations and pausing production during the summer months.

For Rep. Jenny Willford, one of the sponsors behind the bill focused on permitting, these policies are about public health.

"My kid during the summer months will come in with a scratchy throat and a runny nose and tell me that he's got allergies, and I repeatedly have to be like no baby, that's pollution," Willford told KUNC.

The measure is focused on streamlining what Willford referred to as a "siloed" permitting process that allows too much pollution from oil and gas companies.

In Colorado, fossil fuel extractors have to obtain two types of permits. One, from the state’s Energy and Carbon Management Commission, gives producers the green light for construction, drilling and fracking. The other, from the Air Pollution Control Division, applies to each emission source on a particular extraction site.

Sponsors of the permitting bill were concerned that permits are not issued in coordination under the current system. They said companies are often permitted to start construction or drilling before they are issued air quality permits for the emissions the site will eventually create. The construction and drilling phase generates so-called “pre-production” emissions, but the Air Pollution Control Division does not take pre-production emissions into account when issuing permits.

The bill would counter would ensure pre-production emissions are taken into account by requiring oil and gas operators to obtain air pollution permits before they can break ground on drilling and fracking operations.

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Air pollution permits are also currently issued separately for each individual source of emissions at an extraction site or facility, such as generators, smoke stacks or extraction equipment. The bill would consolidate all of an operation’s emission sources within two miles into one permit.

"It's going to treat oil and gas permits, and their air permits in particular, in the same way that we treat other air permits across other industries," Willford said. "Instead of having multiple, small, single-source air permits, a site is going to get one permit. All of those individual sources are going to be contained in that one permit so that we have a much better idea of what is happening with our air quality."

In areas with the highest levels of air pollution along the northern Front Range, called non-attainment zones, oil and gas operators would have to meet additional requirements to get a permit. They would be be required to take the same amount of emissions offline that the new operation would create, and they would be blocked from starting new construction in communities that have disproportionately high rates of air pollution.

"If you want to operate in the non -attainment zone you've got to get a special permit," Assistant House Majority Leader Rep. Jennifer Bacon, another bill sponsor, said. "If you cannot demonstrate that you can operate within an amount that will not contribute further , because let's be honest with the harm we've experienced, then you can't do it. Period."

The second bill in the package would strengthen enforcement around emissions violations, mainly by increasing fines for breaking air quality rules. The proceeds from those fines would be dedicated to environmental mitigation and environmental justice projects.

Operators that break air quality rules more than five times over a three-year period would also be classified as "repeat violators." Lawmakers announcing the policy specifically referenced the Suncor refinery in Commerce City, which was fined $10.5 million earlier this month for three years of air pollution violations.

The third bill would implement a slew of new environmental regulations, the most significant of which would pause oil and gas production during the summer months when air quality is particularly poor, with exceptions for electric equipment.

The northern Front Range has suffered from poor air quality for two decades, and the Environmental Protection Agency continues to classify the area as a “severe” violator of air quality standards. These bills are intended to be small steps toward moving the energy system in Colorado away from fossil fuels.

"We need to figure out how to make some change," Bacon said. "And it's going to require a paradigm shift, so let's just start putting one foot in front of the other."

Bacon acknowledges that the transition has to be gradual so that it doesn’t hurt the economy and leave Coloradans without jobs. While the bill would not ban production in any part of the state, it would force the fossil fuel industry to contend with increased red tape and emissions.

“This impending suite of legislation ignores the meaningful steps industry has taken to protect public health, safety and the environment and stands to impact not only the livelihoods of tens of thousands of workers, but also minimizes private property rights and the industry’s significant economic contributions to Colorado,” a spokesperson for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association said in a written statement.

House Republicans also oppose the bill package.

"As a mom raising two young children in Colorado, I care about clean air for all of our children and families," House Minority Leader Rose Pugliese said. "We can, in a bipartisan way, find solutions to help keep Colorado air clean. The proposals that were introduced are not the answer."

She argued the bills go to far and would over-regulate transportation choices. Assistant House Minority Leader Ty Winter said the bill will hurt the job market and raise prices at a time when Coloradans continue to struggle with high costs of living.

Copyright 2024 KUNC. To see more, visit KUNC.

Lucas Brady Woods