Nine Counties Sue Colorado Health Department Over Air-Quality Rules

Washington Park and snow-capped Rockies, Denver, Colorado. (Robert Kahn / CNS)

DENVER (CN) – Nine Colorado counties sued the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment on Thursday saying new air-quality rules cost more than they’re worth to rural parts of the state.

Colorado passed the Protect Public Welfare Oil and Gas Operations Act last year, restructuring the way the state regulates oil and gas operations. Two key parts of this change include a provision to increase local control — so individual counties can tailor regulations to fit their needs—and mandates to cut down air pollution from oil and gas production.

Thus the state’s Air Quality Control Commission, under the Department of Public Health and Environment, passed a series of rules in December 2019 aimed to reduce emissions from oil and gas production throughout the state.

But the counties that filed the lawsuit in the District Court for the city and county of Denver say the commission took a one-size-fits-all approach that is ineffective for rural communities.

The lawsuit challenges certain assumptions made by the rules including that the “new regulations would impose roughly equal costs to all Coloradans. That assumption was false. The diversity of Colorado’s economy — and in particular the heavy reliance many western and rural counties place on oil and gas activity — means those counties will bear a disproportionate share of the costs of the commission’s increased regulation.”

The new rules limit acceptable volatile organic compound emissions down to 2 tons per year and increase the number of inspections for leak detection and repair to multiple time throughout the year. According to the complaint, this burdens the commission $193,629 over five years.

Operations that produce more than 5,000 barrels of oil each year are also now required to mitigate emissions during the transfer of liquid hydrocarbons from facilities to trucks. Options include burning off excess emissions and redirecting emissions back into the supply. Specialized equipment can cost from $6,200 to $14,550.

These additional costs, commissioners warn, could shut down small operators, eliminating up to 280 jobs and cost the governments $757,000 to $3.8 million in tax revenue, according to testimony from University of Wyoming economist Timothy Considine.

In addition to relying on tax revenue and income from oil and gas productions, the counties point out that their air quality is great—it’s the city slickers that have pollution problems. The Environmental Protection Agency has singled out the Denver and Metro and North Front Range last December for its poor ambient air quality.

Plaintiffs claim the Local Community Organization—a coalition of three environmentalist groups—slipped in stricter rules at the last minute without an updated economic impact analysis and left the counties no time to object.

Garfield, Cheyenne, Logan, Mesa, Moffat, Phillips, Sedgwick, Rio Blanco, and Yuma counties are represented by John Jacus of the Denver firm Davis Graham & Stubbs.

A spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said the agency “does not provide comment on pending or active litigation.”

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