Ruling on Weld County emissions could make life harder for oil and gas industry

A federal appeals court ruled Friday that an emissions-heavy section of northern Weld County that’s currently excluded from limits on air pollution imposed on the Denver metro area should be counted, potentially ratcheting up pressure on the oil and gas industry to operate more cleanly or cut output.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit determined that the Environmental Protection Agency incorrectly left a swath of Weld County abutting the Wyoming state line out of the nine-county “nonattainment” area that centers on Denver, meaning emissions from hundreds of oil and gas wells in that part of the county could soon be added to the metro area for air pollution measurement purposes.

Robert Ukeiley, senior attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the ruling effectively means that Weld County energy operations near the Wyoming border will have to “comply with the more protective standard” that the metro area is under in terms of their emissions output.

“Oil and gas, including in northern Weld County, is responsible for our smog problem, and the court told the EPA enough is enough,” Ukeiley said. “You have to get (the industry) to reduce their pollution.”

The ruling from the appeals court sends the matter back to the EPA for further consideration.

Heat and sunlight bake pollutants, including some of the chemicals emitted by oil and gas operations, to form ozone, or smog. For more than 15 years, Colorado has flunked federal air quality health standards with ozone air pollution exceeding a decade-old federal limit of 75 parts per billion, which was tightened to 70 parts per billion under President Barack Obama.

The World Health Organization recommends no more than 50 parts per billion to protect human health.

The U.S. threshold has placed much of the metro area and areas immediately around it in “nonattainment” status when it comes to meeting the requirements of the Clean Air Act. The EPA in December reclassified Colorado as a “serious” violator of federal air quality laws, forcing stricter state efforts to reduce air pollution.

Lynn Granger, executive director of the American Petroleum Institute Colorado, said her organization was disappointed by Friday’s ruling.

“The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has recently acknowledged a ‘significant’ reduction of ozone-causing emissions, both in Denver and across the state, and we are committed to our leadership role in these efforts,” she said. “According to numerous state agencies, a majority of ozone-causing emissions in the Denver area originate from either outside of Colorado or from sources unrelated to human activity.”

She said her organization remains hopeful EPA “continues to account for the significant progress that has been made and the natural gas and oil industry is constantly innovating to further reduce emissions.”

Requests for comment from the EPA and state health officials were not immediately returned.

Friday’s ruling revolved around two primary issues: Weld County’s outsized role in oil and gas production in Colorado — the county has nearly half of the state’s more than 50,000 active wells — and a finding that EPA had erroneously cited a topographical feature, Cheyenne Ridge, as a reason for excluding the northern section of the county from the nonattainment area.

EPA, the court wrote, claimed that the ridge effectively acted as a blockade to emissions emanating from the northern reaches of Weld County. Except Cheyenne Ridge isn’t where EPA said it was, the court ruled.

“EPA contends that a topographical feature called the Cheyenne Ridge ‘restrict[s] contributions from sources on the upper reaches of and beyond the feature, including’ northern Weld County, from reaching monitors further south in the Denver Basin,” the court wrote. “EPA similarly asserts that the Cheyenne Ridge ‘roughly coincide[s] with’ the boundary of the nonattainment area bisecting Weld County. But … the state accurately located the Cheyenne Ridge farther north, ‘along Colorado’s border with Wyoming.’”

“EPA literally moved mountains to try and cut oil and gas a break from having to reduce pollution,” Ukeiley said Friday.

The court also faulted EPA’s reasoning for excluding the northern portion of Weld County based on the federal agency’s conclusion that that section of the county only contributed a quarter of the nitrogen oxide and 18% of the volatile organic compounds that the county overall emits.

“Given that Weld County sources generate exceptionally high amounts of VOCs and NOx — mostly from oil and gas operations — the fact that northern Weld contributed only a quarter of those emissions does not support EPA’s decision not to consider them,” the court ruled.

The court determined that according to 2011 data, Weld County produced approximately six times as many VOCs as the next-highest county included in the Denver nonattainment area. And compared to the lowest-emitting county, Weld County produced about 60 times as many VOCs and 20 times more nitrogen oxide.

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