As the coronavirus pandemic continues to bring a sudden halt to economic activity and government proceedings across the country, Colorado environmental activists are learning that not all shutdowns are created equal.
Little has changed for the Republican-controlled federal government, which is plowing ahead with a wide range of initiatives aimed at weakening environmental rules and leasing public lands to industrial interests. But things at the state and local levels are more chaotic, with elected officials and regulatory bodies struggling to balance the urgent need to comply with social-distancing measures with their long-term mission to protect health and the environment.
Activists worry that as governments and their constituents become preoccupied by the worsening COVID-19 crisis, big corporate polluters like the oil and gas industry are already using the disruptions to their advantage.
“We’re seeing things pile up in small but cumulatively significant ways,” says Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program at advocacy group WildEarth Guardians. “The public is taxed right now. We’re focused on higher priorities, most of us, and some people have it pretty bad. But we can’t throw public health under the bus and kick it while it’s down.”
In Colorado, Nichols and other critics of the state’s powerful oil and gas industry see a double standard at work, with regulatory proceedings that would place new restrictions on producers being put on hold even as permitting for new drilling and other industry operations continues apace.
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The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has temporarily paused its implementation of Senate Bill 181, the landmark oil and gas bill passed by Democrats over bitter opposition from industry groups in 2019, with several major rulemaking efforts required by the new law suspended until further notice. “Our recommendation is to pause rulemaking because we do not want to undertake such an important piece of business — rulemaking — virtually,” COGCC director Jeff Robbins said at the commission’s monthly meeting on March 25.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, too, has delayed several rulemaking processes, though officials said in a memo released last week that the department plans to perform “the majority of [its] scheduled regulatory and policy activities” by conducting meetings remotely. But activists argue that if agencies like the COGCC and CDPHE are going to suspend important regulatory work, they shouldn't be greenlighting new sources of pollution like oil and gas facilities and other industrial operations at the same time.
“I’m sympathetic to the calls to pause rulemakings, but it has to come with a pause in permitting,” Nichols says. “If you’re going to pause the processes that would actually lead to better health safeguards, then pause everything else. It has to be a two-way street.”
Once again, activist groups like WildEarth Guardians and 350 Colorado have asked Governor Jared Polis to order a halt to new oil and gas permitting — a demand that the Polis administration has repeatedly rejected — and some are even calling for a halt to all oil and gas operations for at least thirty days while the state deals with the health and economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak.
With many Coloradans spending more time at home because of shutdown orders, controversial drilling projects in close proximity to suburban neighborhoods are once again drawing scrutiny from concerned residents, activists and elected officials.
In Broomfield, where a drilling site known as the Livingston Pad sits roughly 1,300 feet from several subdivisions, including a retirement community, city officials last week announced plans to issue an emergency public-health order prohibiting "flowback" operations for the duration of Polis's stay-at-home order. Flowback is a phase in the drilling process during which a volatile surge of chemicals flows to the surface, resulting in much higher emissions of air toxins like benzene.
On March 31, however, a state court granted a request by the Livingston Pad's operator, Denver-based Extraction Oil and Gas, for a temporary restraining order blocking Broomfield from issuing its public-health order. Attorneys for the city have filed a motion to reconsider, and a final ruling is expected by early next week, according to the Broomfield Enterprise. For activists, the right decision is obvious.
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"Coloradans required to stay at home to protect against the COVID crisis shouldn’t be forced to breathe fracking toxics as a result," says Nathalie Eddy, a field advocate for Earthworks. "Extraction’s insistence on continuing with flowback at a site next to a retirement community, with the COGCC’s approval, flies in the face of everything SB181 was intended to achieve."
Further worrying environmental activists are developments at the federal level, where administrators are charging full steam ahead with an agenda of deregulation and privatization. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a Colorado native and former oil lobbyist who has pursued a wide range of controversial changes to federal public-lands policy, warned his employees in a memo this week not to get distracted amid the outbreak. "Failure to work earnestly at this critical time would be disruptive to our Department’s important mission and increase burdens on colleagues," he wrote.
Like many Coloradans in other lines of work, environmental activists are trying to keep up with a chaotic, fast-moving situation. And with widespread closures of businesses and governments expected to continue well into the spring, they're worried that amid all the delays and disruptions, it will be polluters who come out ahead.
"That's our greatest concern," Nichols says. "Is this a harbinger of things to come? Are we going to see the state relent and decide to pause additional climate rulemakings, ozone rulemakings? We've got some big stuff on the calendar this year. It's really important stuff for cleaning up our air quality and meeting our climate objectives. And it would really be a shame if those were put on hold."