Thirty years ago I flew into Denver for an interview before I decided whether or not to take a transfer that had been offered to me. A few days before there had been a big snowstorm; as is typical, the sun was out full force, melting it as rapidly as possible. The views of the Front Range mountains were gorgeous. When I left two days later, a winter inversion was solidly in place and the Brown Cloud was at its peak. Every time I stepped outside my eyes started to water, my nose started to run, and it just smelled bad. A decade earlier I had visited Los Angeles on a couple of bad days, and while Denver wasn’t that awful, it was at least in the same ballpark. (Despite that, I took the transfer.)
The Denver metro area has a history going back to the 1950s of doing regional planning across an area that includes Denver proper and all of the surrounding suburban counties. The Regional Air Quality Council was established in 1989, the year after we moved here. Today, if you know when and where to look you can find the Cloud’s visible remnants, but overall the air is enormously cleaner. Some of the improvement was a gift from the federal government: a contemporary car with a billion-ops-per-second processor, sophisticated sensors, fine control over fuel-injection timing and spark, and a catalytic converter emits a small fraction of what cars did 30 years ago. Some of the improvement is through consistent local identification of sources and regulation of those (eg, wood-burning bans during certain weather patterns). There are still days when the air smells bad and the visibility is sharply reduced – but these days it means that one of the national forests is on fire again.
Ground-level ozone remains a problem. In 2014, to address the ozone issues, Colorado added significant new restrictions to oil and gas drilling operations in the state. New technology developed by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of Colorado made it possible to determine if the drillers were actually emitting at the levels they said they were. As it turned out, the drillers were leaking far more methane and other volatile organic compounds – all precursors for ground-level ozone – than they thought. The division within the state legislature when things were debated was not between Democrats and Republicans, it was between suburban and rural Republicans. The drilling industry was split: in-state companies tended to support the new rules while out-of-state companies operating here opposed them. Wyoming has passed similar rules for the southwestern part of the state.
Late in the Obama administration, the federal EPA adopted a final rule for controlling methane and VOC emissions (hereafter, the methane rule) for drillers operating on federal lands, modeled after the Colorado rules. The current Congress, which has overruled a number of other late-Obama environmental regulations, tried but failed to overturn this one. Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA appointed by President Trump, then ordered a two-year delay in implementing the rule while the administration reviewed it. As might be expected these days, a variety of people sued. Last month the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit held that the delay was equivalent to a new rule, must follow all of the lengthy procedures for creating a new rule, and ordered the EPA to continue enforcement.
The major newspapers in the region have generally taken an editorial position supporting retention of the methane rule. The EPA’s methane rule is also very popular among regional voters. Colorado College conducts an annual extensive poll on opinions in the Mountain West (Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming; Idaho has not been included for the last couple of years). The methane rule is favored by at least 74% of voters in all seven states. For the region as a whole, the methane rule is supported by 84% of Republican voters, 84% of non-affiliated, and 76% of Democrats. (I suspect that the lower number for Democrats reflects people who think the rule doesn’t go far enough.)
The West’s relationship with the federal government on the subject of managing public lands is… complicated. When I put on my old-school western state legislative staff hat, there is a long tradition in the West of believing that those lands are too often managed for the benefit of the rest of the country without regard for costs borne by the locals. Over the last 20 years, there has certainly been the appearance that things have improved, that the feds have been giving greater consideration to the states’ desires. There is a good chance, though, that’s an artifact of changes in western interests. Explosive growth has made the region increasingly less rural. Using Census Bureau definitions, the West is now tied with the Northeast for least rural population. As a result, there is a much greater emphasis on recreation and conservation uses for public lands.
I don’t see any way the administration’s actions work out well for anyone. It seems likely to me that the Supreme Court will uphold the DC Circuit Court’s decision (Kennedy, the swing vote in Massachusetts v. EPA [PDF], is still on the court) so the process of reversing the methane rule will be long and drawn out. The administration will find itself bogged down, first in the proceedings necessary to promulgate a rule, and second in the inevitable challenges in court if the current rule is reversed. Drilling companies are unlikely to take the risks of starting expensive developments until the status of any new rule is firmly nailed down. Western states similarly face uncertainty about the conditions under which they have to deal with air quality problems. A message of “we don’t care what Westerners think about their air” will be ammunition against western Republicans in future elections. I understand that one of President Trump’s campaign promises was to relax environmental regulations; he should have focused on regulations that are broader and lack local support in affected areas.
Image credit: Front page image by the Denver Post.