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Colorado environmental groups threaten to sue EPA for failing to crack down on oil and gas permits

Notice of suit says federal agency should act after state regulators missed deadline
Flaring chimneys and pump jacks operate on oil and gas fields in Jackson County in 2022. (Hugh Carey/The Colorado Sun file)

The Colorado Air Pollution Control Division has missed its Environmental Protection Agency deadline to rewrite permits for a Weld County oil and gas complex, and an environmental group says it will sue the federal agency for delaying its takeover of the permits.

The EPA on Jan. 30 said state regulators writing permits for Bonanza Creek Energy hadn’t guaranteed that flaring operations would burn off pollutants and prevent air quality violations. The EPA order set a 90-day clock ticking for state revisions.

“Colorado is effectively giving the oil and gas industry a free pass to pollute under illegal permits,” said Jeremy Nichols, a senior advocate at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity. “We need the EPA to intervene to ensure public health and the environment comes first and put an end to Colorado’s dangerous foot-dragging.” The center notified the EPA it will file a lawsuit in the delays handling the allegedly flawed permits.

The center says the EPA and state regulators have also failed to act quickly enough on other permits, including revisions to permits for the frequently fined Suncor Refinery in Commerce City.

“They seem to be at a loss when it comes to fixing legally flawed permits,” Nichols said.

Colorado officials acknowledged the deadline has passed, but said they are working on it.

“We are evaluating EPA’s concerns detailed in the order so we can respond appropriately,” division spokesperson Leah Schleifer said. Bonanza Creek’s permits are fully enforceable while the issues are worked out, she said. The division does not comment when issues move into litigation, she added.

Environmental advocates who won the January EPA order through petitions say the ruling could impact thousands of other oil and gas permits in Colorado and other states, because Colorado’s recent ozone failures mean far more drillers must get air pollution permits dictating how they will limit releases of ozone-causing chemicals. The EPA may now consistently order those drilling and processing sites to test the effectiveness of their flaring rather than rely on predictions of how the equipment will work, the advocates said.

The four Bonanza Creek oil and gas wells in question “are defined under the Clean Air Act as ‘major sources’ of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, which form ground-level ozone, the key ingredient of smog. The wells contribute to dangerous air quality in the Denver Metro-North Front Range area, a nine-county region home to more than 4 million people that has violated ozone health standards for nearly two decades,” the Center for Biological Diversity said.

The oil and gas industry says similar flares can burn off 95% of the targeted emissions, but the nonprofit groups say Colorado is not writing permits in a way that demands the most effective flaring equipment or monitoring afterward to prove the emissions are gone.

The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, nonpartisan news organization dedicated to covering Colorado issues. To learn more, go to coloradosun.com.