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Fracking Boom Byproduct: Air Quality Decline

PHOTO: Denver's "brown cloud" of summertime smog. Courtesy Earthjustice.
PHOTO: Denver's "brown cloud" of summertime smog. Courtesy Earthjustice.
December 10, 2012

DENVER - With the fracking boom in places like Colorado's Weld County and across the nation, there's another byproduct: bad air. A study to be published in the Journal of Geophysics Research finds that fumes from oil and gas development are a big reason the Front Range has unhealthy levels of ozone, especially in the summertime.

Will Allison, director of the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division, says the state is trying to solve the problem. It's one of only two states in the country - Wyoming is the other - that require oil and gas companies do something called "green completions" on projects.

"What green completions or reduced emissions completions do is capture the gas and liquids that would otherwise be vented to the atmosphere when you're drilling a well."

But regional air quality is still a problem, even outside of major cities like Denver. Rocky Mountain National Park has been named the smoggiest park outside of California, and smog levels in the Uinta Basin in northeastern Utah are so bad that a coalition of environmental groups filed a lawsuit asking the EPA to label the area non-compliant with pollution standards.

Robin Cooley, staff attorney with Earthjustice in Denver, says Colorado is doing a good job of trying to protect people from bad air quality, but there are more than 46,000 oil and gas wells in the state.

"Development is moving closer and closer to the places where people live. You know, you have local residents with wells that are in their backyard, and they're experiencing health impacts from that, like headaches, dizziness, nosebleeds. "

Despite factors like fracking, a growing population, and seasonal issues such as wildfires and weather patterns, Allison says air quality is slowly improving along the Front Range.

"Folks who have lived here for awhile may remember the brown cloud in the Denver area. That's not the same issue that it used to be. And we are seeing concentrations of various pollutants go down."

He adds that Colorado may see further improvements in the future. By 2018, the state is slated to be weaned off its coal-fired power plants under the "Clean Air, Clean Jobs Act."

More information is at

Kathleen Ryan, Public News Service - CO