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GUEST COLUMN: Clean air and a healthy climate are at-risk

By: Larry Moore, Lauri Costello and Barbara Donachyby Larry Moore, Lauri Costello and Barbara Donachy Guest opinion
March 3, 2018 Updated: March 3, 2018 at 4:05 am
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According to the 2018 Conservation in the West poll, Coloradans overwhelmingly favor health-protective rules that keep us safe from air pollutants and climate-changing methane emissions. Seventy-four percent want government to require the oil and gas industry to do more to prevent leaks and capture methane on public lands. Unfortunately, some in Congress are pushing for the exact opposite.

Congress is working on a federal funding bill that endangers public health and the environment. The bill includes a host of harmful policy riders known as "poison pills," the term for unrelated amendments attached to must-pass legislation.

For example, some of these riders would block Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) rules against dangerous methane pollution from fracking operations. These rules require the oil and gas industry to use cost-effective technologies to reduce natural gas venting and flaring as well as to find and fix leaks from equipment and operations.

The Obama administration's EPA estimated that the agency's standards would avert 510,000 tons of methane pollution in 2025, which is equivalent to burning 12.3 billion tons of coal.

Stopping leaks also reduces the toxic emissions that accompany methane. Published studies have highlighted the connection between living close to fracking operations, exposure to airborne chemicals and increased health risks for Coloradans.

Researchers at the Colorado School of Public Health identified dangerous levels of benzene - a powerful carcinogen - near fracking operations as well as elevated risks of cancer for residents living within a half-mile of a drilling site. Additional peer-reviewed research has shown increased risks for birth defects and childhood leukemia to babies born to mothers living in the closest proximity to and increasing density of oil and gas drilling operations. Asthma has also been associated with fracking operations.

Methane also accelerates climate change. It is far more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide in the atmosphere - fully 86 times more potent over its first 20 years.

We Coloradans are already seeing the impacts of climate change in the increasing number of wildfires and decreasing amount of snowpack. Climate Central reports that Colorado is one of the 10 states experiencing the fastest warming summers. These increased temperatures can lead to increases in serious illness and death for our most vulnerable people.

Fugitive emissions from drilling and rising temperatures contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone, the primary component of smog. This is a major problem for Colorado - our Front Range has failed to comply with EPA ozone standards since 2012. Elevated ozone levels result in increased incidence of asthma and respiratory infections, with children being the most vulnerable. Ozone itself is linked to approximately 10,000 premature deaths in the U.S. each year.

Changes in federal laws regulating methane capture on public lands will not affect Colorado's existing methane rules, and agencies like the BLM tend to defer to state pollution rules. But climate change doesn't respect state boundaries.

In June, Colorado joined other states in a lawsuit challenging the EPA administrator's decision to stop the EPA's rules to reduce methane and other harmful air pollutants from oil and gas operations on federal lands.

We urge our U.S. legislators to follow this example and oppose any poison pill environmental riders, like the methane riders, in the final 2018 spending bill. And we urge our local, state and federal policymakers to support the expansion of clean renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, geothermal and battery backup. Only then can we begin to reduce the risks to our health caused by the mining and burning of coal, oil, and gas.

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Dr. Larry Moore of Manitou Springs, Dr. Lauri Costello of Durango and Barbara Donachy of Denver are members of Physicians for Social Responsibility of Colorado.

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