Regional Air Quality

WW lawsuit is forcing the feds to take air pollution into account in drilling decisions
Condensate fumes seen through infrared camera

Toxic, smog-forming fumes, seen through an infrared camera, spew from condensate tanks at a natural-gas well. Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Oil and gas development has become a major contributor to air pollution in the intermountain west. Parts of rural Colorado now violate federal ozone standards, largely because of drilling. Ozone (smog) is linked to respiratory and heart problems and increased mortality for children and the elderly, and degrades visibility. Oil and gas development can also release volatile organic compounds on a localized basis, leading to severe health effects.

WW is leading efforts to reduce air pollution from energy development in our region. We achieved a big win in August 2013, with the settlement of our lawsuit against the BLM over drilling projects in the Colorado River Valley.

Wilderness Workshop v. Crockett, which we filed in 2011 with Earthjustice’s pro bono counsel, contended that from 2006 to 2011 the BLM approved 34 projects in the Colorado River Valley, comprising more than 1,300 wells, with essentially no air quality analysis. We claimed that the agency’s Colorado River Valley Field Office simply cut and pasted boilerplate analysis from an environmental impact statement that it did as part of a development plan for the Roan Plateau – a plan that a federal judge sent back to the drawing board because (among other things) it failed to take a hard look at air pollution! In short, the BLM has been playing a shell game that has allowed it to approve thousands of new wells without considering the cumulative impacts those wells have on the air we breathe.

According to the terms of the settlement, the BLM agrees not to issue any more drilling permits on the roughly 1,000 wells that haven’t yet been drilled until it has conducted a more thorough review of the air pollution they would cause. In addition, the agency has agreed to set up a more transparent system for informing the public about oil and gas project proposals and permitting. This is an important breakthrough, because up till now the only way to keep track of oil and gas development in the region was to physically go to the BLM’s Silt office and check for notices on the bulletin board.

Air pollution is a major consequence of oil and gas development, and forcing federal land managers to take it into account will likely result in less of it, or at least better mitigation of it. Moreover, we’ve been saying for a long time that the BLM has done a poor job of alerting the public about oil and gas development proposals; that’s why, for example, so much of the Thompson Divide was leased without any public awareness or media coverage. The new procedures that the BLM has now agreed to should give citizens and groups like WW a realistic chance of weighing in on these often esoteric processes.

“The Colorado River Valley Field Office approved more than a thousand wells without any air quality analysis at all,” said WW staff attorney Peter Hart. “People have gotten sick, ecosystems and wildlife have suffered, classic western views have vanished. Until now, the agency simply ignored those impacts. This settlement will ensure compliance with the law moving forward.”