EPA covers earth, wind, fire in Denver hearing

Hearing strikes discordant responses
The Colorado Statesman

A storm of environmental issues blew through Colorado this week as the Environmental Protection Agency took comments in Denver on creating strong carbon pollution standards for power plants, while the state grappled with air quality violations, devastating fires and shrinking water resources.

The EPA’s presence in Colorado caused the greatest ruckus as the federal agency weighs nationwide mandates on carbon emissions. Just the possibility of strong emissions standards has caused uproar within the mining industry, as fears grow that the feds will overstep state regulations for tough nationwide standards.

The stop in Denver was part of an 11-city listening tour by the EPA that is expected to conclude in November. The end goal is to propose regulations by June 2014 as part of President Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, unveiled this spring. The rules would be finalized in 2015.

Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, joins Colorado coal supporters Wednesday outside the state Capitol for a demonstration in support of the industry.

EPA administrators have said that they want to rely heavily on states for input on how to craft the rules. Two possibilities have emerged, including a so-called “rate-based” approach, in which plants would need to meet standards, or a “mass-based approach,” focused on allowing states to receive credits for cutting pollution across a variety of energy sectors.

Sen. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, left, Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, join coal supporters Wednesday outside the Capitol to oppose tough EPA regulation of the industry.

The coal industry and its supporters, however, are flabbergasted that the EPA would conduct listening sessions in urban areas where coal production is miniscule compared to other parts of the country.

Karen and Rolan Marrill, both supporters of the coal industry, join fellow coal advocates Wednesday outside the Capitol for a rally.
Photos by Peter Marcus/The Colorado Statesman

In addition to Denver, the tour makes stops in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Lenexa, Kan., New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. But administrators do not stop in coal-heavy West Virginia, where 96 percent of the state’s electricity comes from coal. About 63 percent of Colorado’s energy is generated by coal, according to the Institute for 21st Century Energy.

Opponents of new regulations say the industry is still struggling with recent rules on future coal-fired plants — part of Obama’s plan. New coal-fired units would need to meet a limit of 1,100 pounds of carbon dioxide per megawatt-hour.

About 150 coal miners and their supporters rallied at the Capitol on Wednesday as the EPA held its listening session in Denver. The conservative Americans for Prosperity organized the event.

Holding signs that read, “Coal = low-cost power,” and wearing T-shirts that read, “I’m pro-choice on energy” and “Legalize coal,” allies lambasted the feds for even considering new regulations.

“Hey, EPA. Can you hear us now?” shouted Amy Oliver Cooke, executive vice president and director of the Energy Policy Center for the Independence Institute, a libertarian think tank in Denver.

“I’m an energy feminist,” said Cooke. “I am pro-choice on energy sources.”

Rep. Don Coram, a Republican from Montrose whose district includes coal areas of Colorado, said he is worried that burdensome regulations would cut jobs in the state.

“I hope you’re all being good because the rumor is that the EPA has banned coal in stockings for Christmas,” joked Coram.

“We’ve got to stand together and take this over…” he added. “We talked about the president and his war on coal. If he had been as effective on rolling out the Affordable Care Act as he has on implementing the war on coal, we would all be one happy nation now. But that hasn’t happened and we need to work forward.”

Rep. Ray Scott, a Republican from Grand Junction whose Western Slope district is home to much of the energy sector in Colorado, suggested that the listening tour is simply for appearances.

“Do you think the decision is made?” he asked. “More than likely, yes, it is made.”

Scott is also concerned about the EPA passing one-size-fits-all regulations that may not work for Colorado.

“It’s disheartening to know that we have a Washington, D.C. mandate being discussed here in Denver, Colorado today,” said Scott.

Stuart Sanderson, president of the Colorado Mining Association, said his industry is fighting a battle for energy security and jobs.

“Halloween is yet a day away, but the EPA is in town, and do they have some tricks in store for you,” quipped Sanderson.

He said his industry is still grappling with state legislation from 2010, the Clean Air-Clean Jobs Act, which began converting a handful of coal-fired power plants to natural gas.

“There are politicians out there who have voted to end coal use… They voted a president into office whose Environmental Protection Agency will never allow the construction of another new coal-fired plant in this country,” said Sanderson. “That’s wrong. We need to stand up and do something about it.”

Sean Paige, deputy state director for Americans for Prosperity, said a regulation is no different than a tax.

“Regulation is a stealth form of taxation…” he said. “Every time a regulation gets handed down by the people down there in the glass building, that’s costing you.”

Support from gov’s office?

But a coalition has emerged to support the EPA in its rulemaking. The Colorado Climate Action Campaign, led by Environment Colorado, held a separate news conference Wednesday at the Tattered Cover in downtown Denver.

One key component will be earning support from Gov. John Hickenlooper and his administration as the EPA crafts rules and regulations. The Democratic governor has been at odds with some environmental leaders over his support for hydraulic fracturing. As a former geologist, Hickenlooper has many close ties to the energy industry.

But there appeared to be a bit of a kumbaya moment between Hickenlooper’s administration and environmentalists on Wednesday when Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia joined their news conference. Hickenlooper was visiting flood-ravished parts of the state, but Garcia served as his representative.

“It is important that the EPA, that they have an opportunity to hear from you,” Garcia addressed about 50 people. “As we try to develop these standards, it’s really important to get public input, and public input is often lacking when we make decisions in government. We hear from industry folks, but we don’t hear enough from everybody else.”

That said, Garcia appeared reluctant to allow the EPA to craft rules specific to Colorado.

“Let us solve our own problems. Let us set our own standards, as long as we’re making progress,” declared Garcia. “But I think the federal government may need to get involved when they face states or entities that aren’t willing to address the problems.

“To the extent that we are able to address the issues of air quality here in Colorado, to the extent that we’re able to address issues around emissions here in Colorado, I think we should be allowed to do that,” Garcia added.

Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones, who has battled the governor’s office over fracking in Boulder County, said she is hopeful that Hickenlooper’s office will be supportive of tough rules and regulations.

But speaking after Garcia, Jones said she believes the EPA should intervene if Colorado and other states don’t do more around emissions standards.

“This is a planetary problem that we’re dealing with,” explained Jones. “We’re dealing with carbon pollution. So, it’s important that we work across our entire nation to raise our standards. And if states want to go beyond it, that’s great, let’s create incentives for that. But the feds need to set a strong floor.”

Air quality standards

Meanwhile, the state is considering new rules for air quality, concerned that Colorado is repeatedly out of compliance with federal ozone standards. The Air Quality Control Commission has targeted emissions related to oil and gas operations.

The commission is expected to release a set of proposals in the coming days. Much of the rulemaking will align the state with recent federal rules and regulations that call for tougher methane emission standards on condensate tanks.

But concerns have already been raised that the draft rules won’t go far enough. Some environmental insiders have seen a leaked draft, and they’re not happy.

“We were shocked and angry when we learned that after almost a year of meetings, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is recommending air pollution rules that are weaker instead of stronger,” said Jaime Travis, spokeswoman for Colorado Moms Know Best, which has been lobbying the administration for tougher standards to protect children from environmental risks.

The group showed up at Hickenlooper’s office this week to deliver a petition signed by more than 8,000 Colorado moms calling for tough standards to control emissions. They brought 18 “Gas Patch Kids,” or Cabbage Patch dolls, to represent kids living in areas impacted by oil and gas development.

The biggest concern is that the rules won’t do enough to capture methane emissions. The draft supposedly addresses “volatile organic compounds,” but not methane, according to environmentalists close to the discussions.

Safeguards would be included to burn off emissions and to minimize methane leakage, but environmentalists believe the rules should go further. For one, the coalition would like to see monthly emissions reviews at oil and gas sites.

According to those close to the discussions, the draft would call for most of the state’s well sites to be inspected twice a year — a far cry from the monthly reviews sought by environmentalists.

“It is 100 percent unacceptable to allow companies to spew even more pollutants into the air my kids breathe every time they play outside, right next to our backyard,” said Andrea Roy, an Erie mom who has become increasingly concerned by fracking activities in her part of the state. “I am furious that the rules seem to be getting weaker rather than stronger.”

In addition to ending methane emissions and requiring monthly reviews, environmentalists and their allies would like to see increased use of capture technologies on storage tanks, disclosures of chemical emissions, and the use of infrared cameras to detect leaks. The coalition is also pushing for tough and speedy standards on repairing leaks.

They are fearful that the proposed rule would allow higher levels of air pollution in the state by relaxing thresholds for reporting emissions and requiring permits. The draft would allegedly allow companies to emit five times more pollution before having to seek a permit, according to the Colorado Progressive Coalition, which has seen the draft.

But the industry says it already voluntarily employs many protections against toxic emissions, including using infrared cameras.

“The workers in the oil and gas industry live, work and pay taxes in this wonderful state and we all breathe the same air as our neighbors,” said Doug Flanders, spokesman for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “Fortunately, Colorado has some of the more protective air emission regulations and resulting controls in the country.

“Common sense and innovative standards are necessary to control air pollution, which is exactly why the new EPA rules, which CDPHE’s air rulemaking will implement, are based on Colorado existing rules and regulations,” Flanders continued. “As we have found in Colorado, there are positive practices that promote conservation through the capture of natural gas and the resulting emissions reductions, and while methane is not considered an ozone precursor, it is captured by these devices as well.”

COGA has not yet offered public comments on the rulemaking. But sources close to the discussions say the industry has offered a proposal that includes inspection exemptions for facilities that produce less than 20 tons of pollution per year; inspections once a year for producers that emit 20 to 30 tons per year; inspections twice a year for producers that emit 30 to 50 tons per year; and quarterly inspections for producers emitting more than 50 tons per year.

The best approach for regulators may be to ensure that all stakeholders are a bit displeased by the rulemaking, which would indicate a compromise. That was the case when the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission last year passed new rules and regulations on the industry.

A spokesman for Hickenlooper said the process continues to evolve. The process is expected to last at least through February.

“The governor has encouraged a robust stakeholder outreach process and a strong science-based approach in developing new rules,” said Eric Brown. “These rules are still pending. The administration’s goal is for Colorado to have regulations that are a national model in protecting public health and the environment.

“The energy boom has been good for Colorado’s economy,” Brown continued. “We want to make sure our air regulations are good for the environment.”

Wildfires and water

Connected to the climate change discussion are issues around wildfires and water. The state has recently seen historic devastating fires and a depletion of water resources, which has encouraged state lawmakers to take action.

The Wildfire Matters Review Committee this week backed eight bills and two resolutions aimed at curbing wildfires. The measures address everything from building codes and fireworks restrictions, to funding for forest health projects and firefighter safety training.

The bills must still be introduced and addressed by the legislature in the upcoming session that begins in January.

The eight bills approved by the committee would:

• Empower municipalities to remove trees if it would mitigate fire hazard;

• Make it easier for local governments to prohibit fireworks and restrict agricultural producers from burning on their property during fire warnings;

• Authorize the Colorado Water Resources and Power Development Authority to make loans for forest health projects;

• Allow credits to landowners of 50 percent of the costs incurred by performing wildfire mitigation, up to $2,500;

• Direct the state treasurer to transfer $3.25 million from the Mineral Leasing Fund to a new Local Firefighter Safety Fund;

• Require the Division of Fire Prevention and Control to make a payment of $10,000 to survivors of a seasonal wildfire rescuer who is killed in the line of duty;

• Extend protections for public agencies on immunity from civil liability related to wildfire mitigation; and

• Create the Wildfire Information and Resource Center.

The two resolutions would honor the service and sacrifice of the 19 wildfire responders who lost their lives in June battling the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona, and honor Colorado National Guard members for their firefighting efforts.

On water issues, the Water Resources Review Interim Committee backed five bills and a resolution around ongoing drought and declining snowpack, which has been tied by the scientific community to climate change.

Legislative Council must still review the measures before the legislature can introduce the bills in the upcoming session.

The water bills backed by the committee would:

• Provide incentives to promote the construction and operation of hydroelectric energy facilities;

• Make it easier to allow an applicant who seeks to implement alternatives to dry-up of irrigated lands to apply for a change in use designation;

• Clarify that severance tax dollars credited to the Small Communities Water and Wastewater Grant fund can be used for domestic wastewater treatment works;

• Remove statutory printing requirements for information provided by the Division of Water Resources; and

• Require the state to oppose any attempt by the federal government to claim partial or joint ownership of water rights belonging to Colorado.

The resolution backed by the water committee would call for a special exemption from interstate highway weight limits for truckloads carrying forest products on federal highways.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com