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Air quality improves as the Front Range self-quarantines from coronavirus, highlighting the impacts of oil and gas operations

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misidentified one of the groups that has referred to Detlev Helmig’s data when calling for larger setbacks for oil and gas drilling from residential and other development. The group is 350 Colorado. Additionally, the earlier version misspelled the name of the Wattenberg 

With thousands of cars off the road, the air along the Front Range has seen significant declines in levels of nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, major components of air pollution.

According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, concentrations of PM2.5, atmospheric particulate matter that has a diameter of less than 2.5 micrometers, are down between 36% and 49% in the north Denver area, depending on the monitor, and concentrations of PM10 are down 29% to 41%.

However, the air monitoring station at Union Reservoir in Longmont found that levels of benzene, ethane and methane — three gases closely linked to oil and gas operations —  have continued to spike, clearly denoting the industry’s effect on the Front Range’s air quality.

The air quality monitoring station is seen at Union Reservoir in Longmont on April 8, 2020. As vehicle use drops during a stay-at-home order, oil and gas emissions are clearly delineated in data gathered at the air quality monitoring station. (Matthew Jonas/Staff Photographer)

In fact, about 1 p.m. March 26, Detlev Helmig, an air quality specialist who Longmont hired to analyze emissions from oil and gas operations near the city, saw the highest levels of methane he has ever seen.

“This spike went to 35 parts per million, but only for about 10 minutes; it’s like someone opened a spray can,” he said. “If you look at our air quality data from Boulder Reservoir over the last two and half years, methane levels are usually around 2 or 2.5 parts per million and the highest we ever saw was 3.4 parts per million.”

While Helmig said it’s difficult to know exactly what caused this monstrous spike in methane, “the data definitely has a story,” he said. “The wind was steadily blowing from the north, and we don’t see these levels of emissions when the winds blow from the south, in Denver, or from the west, in Boulder.”

The closest active fracking site to the air monitoring station at Union Reservoir, the Wattenberg well, is slightly less than one mile to the north.

“It is most likely coming from a well site somewhere to the north,” he said. “Anyone living closer will likely see higher levels of emissions and more frequently than what we are capturing in the further downwind measurements at the Union Reservoir. Anyone living within a quarter mile of the source could see levels three times as high.”

On March 29, the air monitoring station at Union Reservoir measured a large spike of benzene with concentrations reaching 6 parts per billion, and “we often see benzene values of up to 8 parts per billion,” Helmig said. At the same time as this spike, there was a similar spike in ethane, suggesting the spike came from an oil and gas operation.

The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry’s short-term health-based guideline suggests that exposure to benzene levels of 9 parts per billion is unhealthy. According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, exposure to benzene at levels higher than 9 parts per billion can cause short-term health effects like headaches, skin and eye irritation, and respiratory issues for people living within 300 to 2,000 feet from an oil and gas operation. The current requirements for setbacks in Colorado is 500 feet.

At much higher levels, exposure to benzene can also cause short-term health effects such as drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, tremors, confusion and unconsciousness. While there is no statistically significant increased risk of cancer or other long-term health effects that can be predicted by a single measurement above the health-based guideline, the department did say that “our simulated total cancer risks from oil and gas operations are underestimated, but the degree of underestimation cannot be assessed accurately.”

On Nov. 5, a mobile air quality monitoring lab operated by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment measured a benzene level of 10.24 parts per billion at Bella Romero 4-8 Academy in Greeley, which is approximately 1,200 feet from a well pad operated by Extraction Oil and Gas and is near other oil and gas-related well pad and support facilities.

Though the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment cannot conclusively prove where the elevated benzene levels at Bella Romero 4-8 Academy originated, the department is currently conducting an investigation. The event caused a rather significant stir throughout the state. Even the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission mentioned it during its December rulemaking hearing, when the board significantly increased emissions regulations on oil and gas operations.

“The objective is simple — minimize emissions at the source,” Garry Kaufman, director of the Air Pollution Control Division, wrote in a statement at the time. “These new rules represent months of hard work and communication with affected communities. They will slash emissions, make Colorado’s air cleaner and improve the quality of life for Coloradans across the state, including those citizens that live or work near oil and gas sites. They’re reasonable, cost-effective, innovative, and absolutely necessary. And we’re just getting started.”

While anti-fracking groups like Colorado Rising and 350 Colorado have pointed to Helmig’s data in the past to call for larger setbacks, increased monitoring or even outright bans, industry leaders say their commitment to reducing emissions leaks has greatly limited their contribution to the region’s diminishing air quality, and stricter regulation would mean fewer jobs.

In January, Crestone Peak Resources installed air quality monitors at all of its horizontal fracking sites throughout the state in an attempt to prove this assertion, though it did not respond to a request to release those findings to the public.

“We don’t have fugitive emissions (above the state-mandated levels), but hopefully this will bring some data and some acknowledgment to the magnitude, or the lack of magnitude, that oil and gas bring to that issue,” said Jason Oates, director of government affairs for Crestone Peak Resources. “We’ve done a lot of our own testing, and the findings were somewhat contrary to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment findings (that linked elevated levels of benzene at the Bella Romero K-8 Academy in Greeley to nearby fracking sites and that fracking could cause negative health impacts).”

Helmig’s data, however, would seem to suggest the opposite, at least for some fracking sites.

While this issue was planned to be hashed out more during the Colorado OIl and Conservation Commission’s rulemaking hearings in April, the commission has postponed the hearing until at least June due to the coronavirus outbreak. Nevertheless, the board said the pandemic will not loosen any regulations in the meantime.

“Ultimately COVID is a respiratory condition,” said John Putnam, director of environmental programs, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, during the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s March board meeting. “We are still concerned about air quality implications. We are still enforcing our rules, we are still looking at tightening those rules … we remain an ozone nonattainment area, so from our perspective, we need to continue making progress towards reducing emissions.”

Boulder County has postponed amending its land use code to ensure the strictest possible regulations. The county’s current moratorium on reviewing new oil and gas permits expires July 31.

Kim Sanchez, the deputy director of Boulder County Community Planning and Permitting, said the county will reexamine its own hearing schedule when there is more certainty regarding the end of the coronavirus outbreak.

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