Fog over the Four Corners: Part II

(Second in a two-part series) Click here to read Part I

The quality of air throughout the Four Corners has slipped in recent years, partly because of rampant energy development in northwestern New Mexico.

Now, the federal government’s plan to allow more oil- and gas-drilling on those public lands, without significant pollution controls — despite admitting it will violate air-quality standards for health — has forced opponents to go to court.

The Bureau of Land Management’s decision to significantly expand private oil- and gas-drilling in the Four Corners region violates federal environmental law and ignores American Indian religious rights, according to a lawsuit brought by a coalition of energy watchdog groups, the Navajo tribe and individuals.

“They see it as a sacrifice zone for energy development, but the communities who live nearby are not ready to be sacrificed,” remarked Dan Randolph, oil and gas specialist with the San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango-based nonprofit. “We do not believe that the area should be a single-use landscape.”

The alliance, along with the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, Natural Resources Defense Council and three Navajo governmental chapters, filed the complaint in Washington federal court last month. The 45-page complaint argues that the government did not follow due process and has shoddy environmental controls for clean air, species management and Native American cultural resources.

The New Mexico Cattle Growers Association has also offered comments expressing serious concern about the information the BLM’s decision was based on.

The BLM gave the initial go-ahead in 2003 for 10,000 more oil and gas wells on 1.4 million acres of public lands in a high desert region around Farmington, N.M., that currently has 18,000 of them.

The growth rate is expected to be 500 new wells per year over the next 20 years. In Southwest Colorado, the plans include 500 new wells, with the accompanying new pipelines, roads and compressor stations needed for delivery.

The expanding spider-web of roads and pipeline that led to thousands upon thousands of polluting pumping stations, wells and drilling rigs in the San Juan Basin is so vast it can be seen from space. But the methods used to extract the country’s largest natural-gas reservoir have also affected local ranchers, neighborhoods and downwind communities such as Aztec, Bloomfield, Cortez, Durango, Bluff and Moab.

Industry, feds balk at affordable solution

Visible as a yellow-brown haze on the horizon, the pollution from coal-fired power plants, drilling operations and the combustion-fueled compressor stations contributes to ozone and haze, a health hazard for active adults, children and especially asthma sufferers.

Monitors at Mesa Verde National Park prove air quality in the region is suffering from current energy operations nearby. Under the Clean Air Act, ground-level ozone measurements cannot exceed 84 parts per billion during any three-day rolling average. In a recent summer the level spiked to 72 parts per billion at the park, and this winter it has shown signs of a gradual, but steady increase into the mid-60s. Anything above 50 ppb is considered a health hazard for vulnerable people as well as for plants and animals.

One major contributor to ozone is nitrogen dioxides, a by-product of engine combustion from pipeline compression stations and from coal-fired power plants. When nitrogen dioxides combine with well-site emissions known as volatile organic compounds and then are hit by sunlight, toxic, invisible ozone is created.

One solution ignored by the BLM was requiring the industry to install catalytic converters on all new compressors, or some similar pollution-control technology. Experts predict that that measure would be enough to counter the cumulative pollution impact of so many new compressors, thereby keeping regional ozone levels at a safe level.

“In Wyoming they are achieving emissions on well-head compressors of less than one gram of nitrogen dioxide per horsepower hour and there are other technologies such as lean burn that work well too, but the BLM is not requiring any of that,” Randolph said.

It is estimated that each compressor could be fitted with a catalytic converter for $1,000. That’s an estimated price tag of between $10 million and $20 million, assuming each of the 10,000 new wells requires one or two compressors each.

“For an industry that makes hundreds of millions per year in revenues from that single basin, the one-time investment for pollution controls does not seem like much. It’s shortsighted not to do it,” stated Bruce Baizel, staff attorney for the Oil and Gas Accountability Project.

In 2002, all of San Juan County, N.M., produced a staggering $4.5 billion in revenues from natural gas, according to San Juan Citizens Alliance data.

So why the holdout?

“It’s a struggle between the coal-fired power plants and the oil and gas industry to see who will be forced to pay; they are pointing fingers at each other,” explained Baizel. “I think it is fair to say they want to systematically chip away at the Clean Air Act in the push to implement the government’s National Energy Policy” of increased domestic production.

For example, in a section of the Clean Air Act known as “new source review,” reform is being pushed through that lessens pollution controls for expanding power-plant production. New Mexico has sued over the reform, as have 12 other mostly Eastern states, but not Colorado.

“They figure this is a way to make sure everyone gets the message to move ahead and push projects through in the hopes nobody will challenge them. Now that we have, we hope a judge will make them go back and rewrite their (BLM) management decision based on the knowledge that they admitted violating the Clean Air Act,” Baizel said.

Requests for interviews with New Mexico oil and gas industry officials were ignored. The BLM does not comment on pending litigation.

However, according to the Four Corners Business Journal, industry officials have been told by the BLM that its management plan was solid and that it would “prevail” in the lawsuit.

Industry officials have also argued that the BLM would halt development if it begins to violate federal standards.

Coal-fired power plants are also major contributors to regional air pollution. In February, a federal district court judge in New Mexico ruled against the Public Service Company of New Mexico regarding air-quality violations alleged against its San Juan Generating Station.

The lawsuit by the Sierra Club and Grand Canyon Trust, which was filed in May 2002, charged the plant with violating the federal opacity limit more than 60,000 times in the past five years.

The company, known as PNM, had argued that water vapor emitted by the plant had contributed to the increased opacity readings, but could not provide hard data on how much of the opacity was caused by steam, which is acceptable, and how much by particulates.

The case is not over. In the next phase of the trial, PNM is expected to provide more detail on the content of its emissions, according to the Farmington Daily Times.

Asthma rates on rise

Currently Colorado has the second-highest asthma rate in the nation, with an estimated 7 percent of the population thought to have the chronic disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control. But while ozone pollution is a major contributing factor to asthma, efforts to fund a $14,000 monitoring station in Durango have been dismissed.

“We’ve been pressuring the state for years, but the funding is not there,” reported Wano Urbonas, environmental health director for the San Juan Basin Health Department. “The trouble is we do not know what the levels (of ozone) are here, and that is worrisome because just across the border (in Aztec and Bloomfield) the levels are known to be high.

“We are encouraging the state health department to play a bigger role in Southwest Colorado because ground-level ozone can travel up to 100 miles away” from its source.

Children are especially susceptible to asthma. According to the Colorado Asthma Program, children between the ages of 1 and 15 are the hardest-hit group. National statistics have shown that the number of children with asthma more than doubled between 1980 and 1995, with rates for children under 5 years old increasing over 160 percent during the same period.

Heavy exercise during high ozone days could have negative medical consequences for healthy people as well, experts warn.

“Athletes have high minute ventilation, which means they are huffing and puffing a lot more,” explained Dr. Donald Cooke, an asthma specialist in Durango and Cortez, “and so when ozone levels are in the dangerous parts-per-billion ranges they are breathing in more than what is considered safe amounts.”

He cited a study performed in Los Angeles where two sets of joggers were analyzed for asthma occurrence: one that ran regularly near crowded highways and one group that did not.

“What they found was that those exercising near freeways had an increase in asthma occurrence,” Cooke said. “But here I do not believe it is a real concern yet.”

However, he added, athletes in communities nearer to the power plants, such as high-school track teams, should be concerned about workouts in high ozone days, “that is, if they had some way of knowing the levels.”

Scenic views fade

Most visitors to national parks and wilderness areas expect clear visibility, and the most natural air quality possible is required by federal law.

Mesa Verde Park is no exception, and the Weminuche Wilderness must also adhere to the Class I standard under the Clean Air Act. But because of a bureaucratic loophole, the nearby Lizard Head Wilderness is exempt from the highest standard under the act.

Air-monitoring takes place at Mesa Verde and the Weminuche but not at Lizard Head, said Jeff Sorkin, regional air-quality specialist with the Forest Service. Visibility and acid-rain data from the Weminuche wilderness has been collected but are still being analyzed, he said. Trend results are expected in the near future from stations on Wolf Creek Pass and on Shamrock Mines Mountain near Bayfield.

The placement on the southern edges is to pick up air-flow patterns coming from the south into the wilderness, significant because of the high pollution factor in northern New Mexico coal and gas fields.

“We monitor the wilderness areas to determine if there are any changes in air quality so we can protect the ecosystem,” Sorkin said. “We want to be able to do corrective management and mitigation if necessary.”

Clear views are very important for visitors at Mesa Verde National Park, said Natural Resources Manager George San Miguel of the park.

“When it is limited because of haze, it is something visitors notice right away,” he said, “There is a real sense of urgency when they go to an overlook and say, ‘I cannot see very far today.’”

Visibility varies quite a bit from day to day at the park, San Miguel said, but can be especially bad on stagnant days in the heat of summer. When haze is thick, it has a negative impact on the visitor experience.

“It’s more than just ‘it’s hazy — what a drag,’” he said. “A visitor’s ability to see what the life of an Anasazi was like is damaged when there is an inability to see what the landscape looks like. The Anasazi depended on the ability to see their neighbors, to see distant objects and navigate by them.

“So it is more than just aesthetic — smog affects our ability to filter out the modern world when we are trying to learn about the ancient world.”

Locals such as M.B. McAfee of Lewis, who’s lived most of her life, notice the change as well.

“You could see Shiprock every day from every viewpoint in the area,” she recalled. “Then the brown cloud started to appear in the ’80s and now Shiprock is obscured by haze, even invisible some days.”

The lawsuit against the BLM does not call for an injunction to halt production until a improved plan is created, but plaintiffs are considering that move. Meanwhile, a response by the BLM is expected in April, lawyers say.

“We’re not trying to shut them down; we are not saying there should not be any drilling,” concluded Randolph. “But we are saying that it can be done right with new technologies that still make a profit, and without forever destroying the landscape.”

From March 2004.