The Pretend Administration:  Colorado Governor Polis and Fracking

As children, we liked to pretend to be adults, usually our parents, but sometimes great athletes and screen idols.

My dad was a railroader. My brothers and I often played with his lantern, which was used as a signal light for communication between trainmen at the front and backend of the train. This was in the days before radio communications were common. We could, with limited instruction, give the highball sign to set an imaginary train rolling on down the line.

Dad kept the railroader’s bible, a complete list of all train schedules, called a timetable, in his bib overalls. He sometimes kept a half pint of Four Roses in there too. To me the timetable seemed so complicated that only he and other strangely educated men in bib overalls secreting half-pints could understand it. I never cared for bib overalls, and not much for Four Roses. That’s where imitation ended.

The 1-year-old Polis administration is playing at being adults, too.  They have a timetable for implementing the state’s new law, SB 181 — the law that promised to protect people and the environment against the unfettered designs of the oil and gas industry. But Polis’ implementation timetable only makes sense if you have a clock that keeps geologic time and have a remaining life expectancy of 20 years or more.

For example, a couple of weeks ago, after 8 months of meeting with stakeholders, a truly fascistic term, the administration finalized the first rule. Twelve have been proposed. More will be needed, but are yet unscheduled. This first of the promised many had been advertised as potentially a great breakthrough on the road to public probity.

The issue was flow lines, the small, 2- to 3-inch lines that carry oil product and waste from the wellhead to collection facilities, usually within the well site itself. They are a very minor part in the massive framework of an oil and gas infrastructure that can kill, maim and destroy. Yet, it was an abandoned flow line that caused the death of two people and severely burned another recently. Not much imagination is needed to understand the mayhem and destruction the big pieces of the industry’s killing machine have and will continue to have on all planetary life.

It was Erin Martinez who had been severely burned, her husband and brother killed, when her home in Firestone exploded from a gas buildup from a supposedly abandoned flow line. Courageously, she came before the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state regulatory agency in charge of making oil and gas rulings for the Polis administration. She asked that all flow lines be removed once the well they served has been abandoned and the lines are no longer used.

Martinez’s logic is impeccable. If the flow lines are removed, they can’t kill. But the Polis people consulted a higher authority, the industry itself. They decided that removal should be situational, exceptions should be considered. For example, the industry argued that removal might damage wildlife habitat. Damage doesn’t occur in the doing apparently, only in the undoing. Some environmentalists clucked knowingly in agreement.

What is the real reason for the exceptions that will become the rule? It’s too costly for the industry to remove the lines. There are reportedly enough buried flow lines to crisscross the state three times. Much of the industry is near bankruptcy. The Polis administration silently made a decision that the public can better bear the cost, and that the Martinez tragedy was an anomaly. That is the kindest reading one can give to the new rule.

The industry also convinced the Polis administration that the identification of these tiny flow lines shouldn’t be too precisely reported because precise identification creates an uncontrollable urge to pyromania for the thousands of Muslim and dark-skinned terrorists that have scaled Trump’s wall. It was the criminal carelessness of Anadarko Oil and Gas that killed members of Ms. Martinez’s family. And it will be industry carelessness or neglect that kills again, and already has.

The western landscape is scarred with oil and gas lines, some of them 3 feet in diameter. Studies show that line explosions usually occur from worker error or lax pipeline maintenance. It was the latter that killed eight people in San Bruno, California, a few years back. Terrorism wasn’t a reportable factor in the study results.

Fresh with the flush of success from their flow-line rulemaking, the Polis administration quickly unveiled another rule right before the holidays. The agency in charge of this effort was the Colorado Air Quality Control Division (AQCD). They have the responsibility for monitoring the state’s air quality and issuing pollution permits under the federal Clean Air Act. The oil industry is a big part of their business.

SB 181 charged this state agency with the single most important directive in that law, the continuous monitoring of all large emitters. Oddly, and I’m sure a surprise to most, the state of Colorado has no established real-time measurement of pollution from individual emitters. They rely on the industry to self-report periodically. The state then takes those readings and converts them, by formula, into an estimated volume of pollution for that facility.

So, when the Denver School District restricts kids from going out to play because the ozone readings indicate it would be unsafe to do so, a fairly regular occurrence, incidentally, they are acting on better information than the state has on the actual pollution emanating from individual well pads and facilities such as compressor stations or processing plants. The pollution from these sites is the source for the majority of the gasses that form the Front Range’s serious ozone problem. The schools have actual readings of ozone levels. Whereas the AQCD relies only on what the industry tells them they are polluting, and under the new rule, they will continue to do so.

That was what the AQCD rulemaking was about. Asking the industry to report more often on what and how much it is polluting. Is this formulation truly the workings of an adult mind? Most of us will not turn ourselves in if we speed. We are even more unlikely to do so if we speed often. What motivation does the industry have to report accurately? They are not required to do so, because there is no reasonable oversight.

The AQCD’s rule also imposed stricter, more frequent site monitoring via the use of the state program dubbed LDAR, leak detection and repair. Chief in the state’s leak detection weaponry is the infrared camera. They are called FLIR cameras. The state reportedly has several of them. They tell whether a site is polluting, but they can’t tell what individual gases are being emitted, nor can they measure the volume. Given the paucity of expensive cameras, the state’s trained smellers and listeners are equally important to the LDAR program.

The smellers and listeners are often sent to investigate citizen complaints about smells, noise and odors coming from well sites. These trained people are sent out to smell around and listen for leaks. Raw methane has no smell, though benzene does. So in most cases nothing is found, not because there was nothing, but because the smelling expert, even if doubly armed with a FLIR camera, comes after the fact. In many cases, the incidents occur on weekends when many locals are convinced the industry is venting methane and fellow hitchhikers like benzene since they lose less money by wasting it to the atmosphere than shipping it to a glutted market. Venting is illegal. It is considered a waste of a nonrenewable resource. Methane overproduction is the scourge of the fracking industry.

Continuous monitoring as required by SB 181, and as I said earlier, probably its most important single feature, will not come anytime soon. John Putnam, the deputy director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment, within which the AQCD is a division, announced that rulemaking on continuous monitoring would not be taken up until sometime in 2021, fully two years after SB 181 became the law of the state. Until then, we’ll continue to rely on the industry for pollution control and the smellers for the protection of public health.

During early hearings on this rulemaking last month, the general concepts of which preceded SB 181, we had recommended the AQCD redirect its attention and implement continuous monitoring immediately so that we could start to better understand fracking’s impact on local populations. We also recommended that flyovers be inaugurated to provide the continual monitoring SB 181 mandates for smaller emitters. Recently, a small plane equipped with chemical detection equipment and a FLIR camera flew over west Texas to measure the extent of emissions in the fracking fields there. In a single aerial pass, dozens of high methane emitters were identified.

The company conducting the aerial monitoring is a Colorado company. If both continuous monitoring of large industrial sites and continual aerial flights of the oil patch itself, say bi-weekly, were employed in Colorado, these coordinated efforts would go a long way toward developing a cumulative air quality database, which is also required by the law.

Without comment, both suggestions were ignored. The agency claimed, in weeks following, it didn’t have the money to implement these suggestions. This is of course tantamount to saying the state doesn’t have the resources to protect the people. The Polis administration seems satisfied to continue to rely on the industry that’s killing us to protect us.

The state collects at least $50 million in severance taxes annually. Presently most of that money goes back to the counties responsible for the pollution as impact fees. Some goes to water projects. The recommended monitoring program would require only a fraction of those dollars to implement. Moreover, the continuous monitoring requirements for large emitters should be a licensing requirement paid for by the industry.

A teetering industry is still in charge because the state knows any further costs of operations rightfully transferred from the people to the industry itself will only hasten its collapse. And that is not a bad thing.

Worldwide, the fossil fuel industry receives about $400 billion in subsidies annually. Even so, the part of the industry that horizontally drills and fracks tight shale formations such as those in Colorado has never been able to show a profit. The banks are deserting them. We should too. The borrowed money they spend here locally will never equal the cleanup costs and environmental damage they are leaving behind as their legacy.

The planet’s diversity is in steep decline, some experts estimate 200 species go extinct each day. The scientific consensus is that continued fossil fuel development will finish the job of mass extinction. This projection appears as sure as death itself. The philosopher observed that the only thing that keeps us sane is not knowing exactly when we are going to die. We know that we are destroying the Earth and that the politicians in both major parties are complicit. Polis for all his political posturing is as guilty as the rest of the political crowd, as the foregoing narrative clearly demonstrates. It’s OK to go insane. It’s the rational thing to do. So is concerted civil disobedience and unremitting outrage.

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached at: