As millions around the world plan to call for more robust environmental protections during Fiday’s Global Climate Strike, President Donald Trump has ramped up his two-year-long assault on environmental regulations, leaving state and municipal governments to pick up the slack.
In past month alone, Trump has reduced regulations for methane emissions from oil and gas operations, moved to block states from adopting vehicle emissions standards below federal levels, and repealed the Water of the United States Rule, which former President Barack Obama enacted in 2015 to expand the definition of federally protected waterways.
While Boulder County and Colorado already have regulations in place to protect air and water, the new changes at the federal level would create loopholes that would limit progress at the local level.
By repealing the Water of the United States Rule, Trump hopes to redefine “waters of the United States” in the Clean Water Act to only include perennial and intermittent bodies of water as opposed to ephemeral bodies of water, which can be dry for months or years and appear only after heavy rain or snow. In a headwaters state like Colorado, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates 24% of streams are ephemeral.
Erin Dodge, Boulder County Public Health’s water quality coordinator, said the change is not particularly concerning as it was federal law for several decades prior to 2015 and local stormwater and nutrient management programs protect waterways from toxic runoffs. Colorado’s ephemeral waterways are protected under Regulation 31 of the Colorado Water Control Commission, which states that “waters shall be maintained and protected at their existing quality unless it is determined that allowing lower water quality is necessary to accommodate important economic or social development in the area in which the waters are located.”
Ranchers and farmers have hailed the repeal as a victory because of concerns the Obama-enacted rules would require costly federal permits to alter irrigation ditches. However, rescinding federal protections for ephemeral streams and wetlands eliminates the need for a federal permit to dredge and fill the small-but-crucial waterways for developments such as subdivisions, dams, and roads that are deemed “necessary to accommodate important economic or social development.”
“This is a big concern considering all of the new development along the Front Range,” said David Nickum, executive director of Colorado Trout Unlimited. “In Colorado, the vast majority of water is not perennial, so this opens up a lot of potential for mischief.”
Instead of repealing protections for all ephemeral streams, Gov. Jared Polis and Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser suggested the rule be clarified so property owners could be sure exactly which waters are protected by creating a nexus test that would include objective, definable parameters, such as physical or biological markers of connectivity to larger bodies of water.
“If enacted (as is), the Proposed Rule will remove huge swaths of Colorado’s waters from federal jurisdiction,” Polis and Weiser wrote in submitted comments to the Environmental Protection Agency and Army Corps of Engineers. “In doing so, the Proposed Rule will impose significant burdens upon the State of Colorado’s government, will degrade water quality in Colorado, will harm Colorado’s species, may harm Colorado’s endangered species, and may harm Colorado’s economy.”
Boulder County leaders reiterated this same sentiment when it came to the president’s decision to reduce methane emission regulations for oil and gas operations.
According to analysis from the Environmental Protection Agency, the proposed change will cause a nationwide increase of 370,000 tons of methane, 10,000 tons of volatile organic compounds, and 300 tons of hazardous air pollutants between 2019 and 2025. The negative climate impacts of those increases would cost an estimated $8.1 million per year through 2025.
Boulder County’s voluntary oil and gas inspections have identified a gas release or leak with an infrared camera at 82% of sites inspected, 63% of which experienced them in multiple calendar years, and about 54% experienced more than one leak in at least one calendar year.
Detlev Helmig, a fellow and associate research professor at the Institute of Alpine and Arctic Research at the University of Colorado Boulder, who Longmont hired to test its air quality, found that oil and gas-related pollution in Longmont exceeded levels seen in all of the 28 major urban comparison areas, showing concentrations of oil and gas-related pollutants that were at a minimum two to three times higher than in most other large U.S. cities.
“We know from our own studies that we need to strengthen limits on emissions from oil and gas sources, not weaken them,” said Cindy Copeland, air quality specialist for Boulder County Public Health. “Even in Colorado, with oil and gas regulations that are generally more stringent than EPA’s current regulations, oil and gas pollution is still negatively impacting the air we all breathe and our future on the planet.”
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, vehicle emissions and oil and gas operations are the main contributors to Denver and the northern Front Range being reclassified as a “serious” violator of federal health standards after ozone levels failed to meet air quality standards.
In a combined effort to reduce the air quality, even the Colorado Oil and Gas Association has supported Colorado’s methane regulations, which its president and CEO Dan Haley described as “the most stringent air quality rules in the nation.”
“(The federal government is) pulling the rug right out from under state and local governments who are trying clean their air, their water and create a safe and healthy climate for the future,” said Boulder County Commissioner Elise Jones.“It’s unfortunate we have to swim upstream against the federal government, but obviously we’re going to have to take this on ourselves and hopefully we can create some momentum to catalyze action elsewhere.”
While many states, counties, and cities have followed Colorado, and Boulder County in particular, by imposing stricter environmental regulations and suing offenders, after President Trump’s announcement that he will attempt to block California from instituting more protective vehicle emission standards, a measure supported by 68% of Californians, its seems clear thefederal government is attempting to block statewide regulation.
In 2018, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air Quality Control Commission adopted new low emission vehicle standards that are estimated to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 2 million tons annually by 2030. This past August, it passed zero-emission vehicle standards that require automakers to sell more than 5% zero-emission vehicles by 2023 and more than 6% zero-emission vehicles by 2025.
“We have broad support around the Colorado (vehicle emissions) standard, including the support of auto manufacturers,” Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, wrote in a statement. “We acted in the absence of federal leadership, but now are being met by not only federal inaction but sabotage.”