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Understanding Colorado’s Environmental Waste Reality

Colorado’s renewable energy frenzy has been met with an array of positive news. It’s viewed as clean, modern, and the best alternative to break America’s addiction to fossil fuels. But as facts about recycling the first generation of solar and wind-farm materials emerge, the long-held perception of renewables as a panacea becomes unsustainable.

READ: Understanding ESG & Colorado’s Energy Transformation

The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) projects that “large amounts of annual waste are anticipated by the early 2030s” as the solar boom progresses. According to IRENA, the amount of solar panel waste could total 78 million tons annually by 2050.

A similar concern exists in the wind industry. Thousands of tons of windmill blades and giant wind towers, rising as high as 500 feet, are currently disposed of in landfills, largely due to a lack of consistent state regulations governing the retirement and disposal of wind farms. The thousands of colossal concrete pads that serve as the base for each wind tower are also simply left in place in perpetuity. The turbine blades are built with a planned life of 20 to 25 years and contain chemicals that can become hazardous after burial in a landfill, yet the government has not caught on. While technologies exist to recycle the blades, the wind industry has been slow to adopt them due to the high cost.

Solar panels also possess a similarly limited life cycle, and, like lithium-ion and other batteries, contain chemicals and metals, such as lead, that create environmental hazards as they degrade. Like the wind industry, the panels can be recycled, but the high cost has prevented large-scale adoption, despite heavy subsidization by the federal and state governments. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that less than 10% of the country’s decommissioned panels are recycled, mainly due to cost. The price to recycle a single panel is about $15 to $45 for a silicon PV module in the US, compared to only $1 to $5 to dump it in a landfill.

Should Coloradans worry? As primarily a headwater state, meaning most of our water begins here and flows out to the Rocky Mountains, toxic leakage into our rivers is particularly concerning. It was only seven years ago when three million gallons of contaminated water turned the Animas River orange.

READ: Water Pipeline Back in Play? — The Future of Colorado’s Water Distribution

Environmental and safety concerns are not new in the energy landscape. For example, determining the appropriate distance between oil and gas operations, often referred to as setbacks, used to be a major contention in Colorado. And it doesn’t stop there. The impact on water, air, wildlife and the landscape have all been debated and are now all highly regulated here. But it took years of contentious community discussions, public hearings, legislative compromise and collaboration. Today, operators seem to have struck the right balance of production and protection.

Despite the known hazardous magnitude, the federal and many state governments in the U.S. have not enacted consistent regulations governing the disposal of the massive waste created by these new industries. If the Biden administration’s envisioned energy transition is to progress as planned, a resolution to this toxic issue is mandatory. While most support the expansion of new energy sources, it makes little sense to do it at such a cost to the environment it is supposed to improve.

READ: Biden is Right About One Thing — Oil and Natural Gas Aren’t Going Anywhere

It comes down to fairness. Why should some industries like oil, gas, coal or nuclear be held to one standard while others like solar and wind are held to another?

There’s no doubt that an energy transformation is underway. After all, energy is the foundation of everything, and finding ways to produce it more efficiently and responsibly is a no-brainer. Everything evolves and energy is no different. But all sources have benefits and drawbacks. Perfect energy does not exist, and the pitfalls must be addressed and remedied. As an environmental leader, this is Colorado’s opportunity to shine. The next step is to proceed responsibly, fairly and transparently.

Biden is Right About One Thing — Oil and Natural Gas Aren’t Going Anywhere

A funny thing happened when President Biden went off script during his recent State of the Union speech and began jousting with a raucous group of Republican lawmakers.

He told the truth.

Now, that’s not to say the rest of what he said was lies, but in this unscripted moment, which began just as he was talking about climate change, he injected a moment of reality into his speech.

“We’re still going to need oil and gas for a while,” he said, probably to the chagrin of his speech writers.

READ — Understanding ESG & Colorado’s Energy Transformation

He then quickly added, in another off-the-cuff remark, that we’re going to need oil for “at least a decade.” It drew laughs from Republicans because, as conservative Jonah Goldberg tweeted, that’s like saying we’ll need water and oxygen for “at least a decade.”

Even though President Biden has continuously vilified this industry and made it harder to develop our natural resources, beginning with campaign pledges to shut down all drilling to his first few days in office when he shut down the Keystone pipeline and froze federal leasing, his unscripted moment brought a much-needed dose of reality to our national conversation on energy.

We need oil and natural gas to survive. And will, for years to come. Not just a decade.

The federal government, through its Energy Information Administration, projects that by 2050, we will need more oil and natural gas than today, not less. (To be fair, they also expect an even greater share of renewables in our energy mix.)

The global population is growing, and access to efficient, reliable and affordable energy is a human right. We will need all forms of energy to thrive, and attacking domestic production, shutting down infrastructure and making it harder to develop here only means we’ll rely on foreign countries for our energy, which is not an environmental solution and makes our country less secure.

READ — Do Hispanics Bear the Brunt of the Energy Crisis?

Today, oil and natural gas are the primary sources of energy for the global economy, supplying roughly 70 percent of the total global energy demand. In 2021, 81 percent of our primary energy in the United States came from fossil fuels. We will continue to need oil and natural gas for decades to come for many reasons. It is our challenge to produce it cleaner, better and safer here than anywhere on the globe.

But we need realistic conversations about where our energy comes from, and the trade-offs and benefits of all energy sources.

In Colorado, the governor recently renewed his pledge to move our state to 100 percent renewable energy by 2040. But just a few days prior, for nearly three days when the temperature hovered around 0, renewables provided almost no power to our electrical grid as the wind wasn’t blowing and the sun wasn’t shining. Natural gas and coal were the workforces that kept us safe and warm during that cold snap.

Knowing that we need these resources, we need to do a better job of sharing the positive environmental changes we’ve seen in recent years: The new technologies, the lowering of emissions and the promise of innovation and ingenuity.  Our elected leaders need to embrace that as well.

If you’re concerned about climate change, it’s important to note that today we’re powering our electric grid with more natural gas, wind, and solar energy than ever before. The environmental benefits have been, and will continue to be, profound because natural gas, as an energy source, has a low carbon dioxide emissions profile.

But that’s just part of the story. Numerous emissions reductions beyond CO2 have occurred as a result of this trend, with sulfur dioxide down 88 percent and ground-level ozone down 22 percent. The six most common pollutants (PM2.5 and PM10, SO2, NOx, VOCs, CO and Pb) are collectively down 73 percent. That’s a tremendous success story for our environment and our air quality.

In Colorado, we also can be proud that methane emissions from oil and natural gas production are decreasing, and our industry’s volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions have dropped nearly 60 percent since 2011. Technology improvements and regulations that reduce the chance for methane and VOCs to escape into our atmosphere are working.

Our industry continues to make tremendous progress in both the efficiency of energy consumption and in reducing greenhouse gases. However, more work must be done.

We can have the economy we desire and the environment we need, but we need to have realistic conversations about climate, where our energy comes from and what’s feasible. We also need to support policies and infrastructure that allows for continued domestic production, especially here in Colorado where we’re producing some of the cleanest molecules of energy on the planet.

Clean, affordable energy is the key to our world’s future, and oil and natural gas have an important role to play.

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Dan Haley is president and CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association.


Rising to the Cleantech Challenge

The oil and natural gas industry propelled America to greatness in the last century. It is the foundation of energy and artificial light, allowing homes and businesses to be lit at night. The industry is the reason America can heat homes in the winter and keep them cool in the summer. Without it, Americans, particularly impoverished families, could have perished from the effect of sweltering summers or bone-chilling winters. With the advent of automobiles, the industry made it possible for people from all walks of life to travel by land, sea or air, opening up the world to everyone.

While the whole world was becoming smaller, industry challenges were getting bigger. One of the biggest challenges the industry faced happened as it evolved at the end of the 20th century. It was our first glimpse of the reality of drilling for oil and natural gas in big cities. For the previous 150 years, the industry had traditionally limited drilling operations to remote, rural locations, far from population centers. The bonanza of the shale revolution changed everything.

READ — How Environmentalism and the Oil and Gas Industry Can Coexist

To maintain public support and license to operate, the industry needed to quickly adapt to its new landscape, but reforms were slow to materialize, a reality that became increasingly obvious with tapping the shale below Colorado’s Denver/Julesburg (DJ) Basin. With drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” sites in and near various Colorado communities such as Longmont — pushback came fast and furious from the public and activists to the industry’s efforts to develop the oil-rich shale beneath the ground.

Mary Austin, executive director of the Colorado Cleantech Industries Association (CCIA), says the proactive efforts by the oil and gas companies she worked with quickly became obvious when she came on board at CCIA a decade ago. “What hammered home was that they were doing it anyway,” Austin said.

A big part of CCIA’s mission is to help the innovators of cleantech solutions engage with its members, not just oil and gas, but in a variety of industries. Each year, CCIA holds “The Oil and Gas Cleantech Challenge.”

“We do an international call for applications, then the oil and gas companies vet them down to 10 or 12 that they want to meet with in person, and then we do a pitch day,” she said. “We just completed our ninth oil and gas cleantech challenge on September 29 in Denver.”

Heidi Gill, CEO of Urban Solutions Group, founded her company with a focus on developing an innovative sound wall technology after hearing the intensity surrounding noise issues. Like Austin, Gill emphasizes the importance of proactivity in addressing community concerns.

“I always say whether it’s in oil and gas or a different industry, whether you’re older in your career or newer in your career, the people and the businesses that are going to survive are the ones that get good, and get good quick, at understanding the importance of social elements to your business and make it a critical driver for your projects and your operation,” she said.

READ — Clearing the Air on Colorado’s Emissions

With fracking as a focal point for environmentalists and concerned residents looking to halt development of the DJ Basin, the development of solutions in the area became a top priority for the industry. This need led Chris Wright, CEO of Liberty Oilfield Services, to focus on creating a new kind of fracking fleet. He wanted one whose generators are powered by electricity that Liberty generates with natural gas captured right on the lease site.

“Our view on electric frack fleets is that they need to check three boxes,” Wright said. “One, they must be cost-competitive with existing fleets; two, they must be operationally as good or better than existing fleets; and three, they have to actually have lower emissions. The history of electric frack fleets is they don’t check any one of those boxes.”

Through ongoing innovations and process improvements, Wright and his team at Liberty succeeded in checking all three. “For us, it’s deciding how many fleets we’re going to build and where they’re going,” he said.

For an industry that thrives on advancing and adopting innovative technologies, no shale play has provided a better test lab for cutting-edge innovation than the DJ Basin.

Clearing the Air on Colorado’s Emissions

If you’ve lived here long enough, you know about Colorado’s infamous brown cloud and seen the electronic signs with air quality warnings. These ozone alerts from the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) appear more often on hot summer days and advocate carpooling, exercising indoors, or driving and mowing lawns after 5 p.m.

The signs are a plea to residents and visitors to literally take cover to mitigate impact from — or avoid contributing to — additional ozone pollutants. However, there are numerous competing factors that cause, bring and trap these pollutants in Colorado’s air. They do not observe state or national boundaries, and while our beautiful mountains lure newcomers and visitors, their geological features are also a mile-high problem because they prevent some normal dispersion of emissions. To make matters worse, as Colorado’s popularity attracts more visitors, residents and businesses, the problem will likely worsen.

Environmental groups and health watchers have long pointed to Colorado as a hotbed of air pollution that can trigger respiratory symptoms, such as scratchy throat, coughs and difficulty breathing, as well as asthma and other lung diseases. It is a major problem. So, what can be done about it?

First, a little history. The Denver metro area, Colorado’s most densely populated region, was designated an ozone nonattainment area in 1978, seven years after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) established National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) for numerous air pollutants. The region has struggled to meet federal pollution guidelines since, but state officials, along with those from several industries, have been proactive to improve the state’s air quality.

A nonattainment designation is given to areas that do not meet, or contribute to ambient air quality in nearby areas that do not meet the national primary or secondary ambient air quality standard for NAAQS.

The EPA works with its federal, state and tribal regulatory partners to monitor and ensure compliance with clean air laws, all with a goal to protect human health and the environment.

READ — A Zero is Not OK: Some Colorado Representatives are Failing Us on Energy

Where to Start?

One of the most common targets to reduce emissions is the oil and natural gas industry:

  • what’s produced by operators.
  • what’s used to generate power via utilities for our homes and businesses.
  • and the fuel used to power our personal and commercial vehicles, such as gasoline and diesel.

At the wellhead, government officials and industry leaders in 2014 made Colorado the first state in the nation to require energy companies to reduce methane emissions from operations. Energy industry analysts continue to cite Colorado’s rules as a model for methane regulations. Oil and gas operators in the state have been among the first to use rigs powered by electricity, rather than diesel. They’ve also developed airtight closed-loop production systems to reduce emissions. Companies working in Colorado also perform Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) inspections with infrared cameras to detect emissions, which has improved well efficiency and reduced pollutants.

Despite what one might think, oil and gas production contributes only 12% of Colorado’s emissions, according to Golden-based National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). On top of that, NREL estimates 71% of Colorado’s ozone is beyond the state’s control.

It’s transportation that accounts for much more of the state’s pollution, a situation exacerbated by Colorado’s rapid growth. The U.S. Census Bureau reports the state’s population rose 15% from 2010 to 2020, to nearly 5.8 million. Analysts expect the number of people residing in the Centennial State to jump at least another 10% this decade alone.

Egor Vikhrev E6jqigzgoy UnsplashThe Fire Factor

Unrelated to emissions from transportation or oil and gas production, Colorado’s air quality has suffered in recent years due to wildfires that have raged in many areas of the state and across the drought-stricken western United States. For three straight days in August 2021, Denver’s air quality ranked among the worst in the world due to smoke that had been pouring in from megafires in California and elsewhere. Combine that with traditional hot summer weather and the result is unhealthy levels of ground-level ozone pollution.

As officials work on fire mitigation plans, they also know that reducing pollution from sectors such as energy and transportation will not only make Colorado’s air cleaner, it also should reduce risks associated with climate change.

A Focus on Vehicles

In 1995, the state highway department developed a policy that has evolved into the agency’s Air Quality Action Plan, to address greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, efforts to thwart these pollutants seem to remain as volatile as the emissions themselves.

In 2019, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis broke with the policies of Gov. John Hickenlooper, his predecessor, and did not file for a background ozone waiver from the EPA. The move put the Denver area into severe nonattainment, something Polis initially called “good news,” but then reversed course after hearing the EPA’s new ozone status would require the sale of a more expensive blend of gasoline on the Front Range.

The EPA’s mandate for a reformulated gasoline (RFG), a type of fuel that reduces some ozone emissions from engines, is estimated to improve air quality only by a minute 0.01 parts per billion. The switch to RFG also means an expected increase of up to $1 per gallon of gasoline, according to the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce. The chamber points out that because only 40% of Colorado’s gasoline is produced in-state, Coloradans would become reliant on RFG distributors in Texas and California, making Colorado more susceptible to gasoline shortages and price hikes. This switch to RFG is estimated to cost Colorado residents and businesses between $800 million and $1 billion, not to mention that trucking in this cleaner fuel on diesel-run semi-trucks would negate some of its intended environmental benefits.

Pollution Source or Solution?

While emissions from the oil and gas industry do exist, what’s less talked about are the benefits the industry delivers. For years, the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance (WEA) has highlighted that Western natural gas is a powerful “clean air tool,” citing statistics that indicate the use of cleaner-burning natural gas to produce electricity emits approximately half the carbon dioxide (CO2) of coal along with lower levels of other air pollutants. Burning natural gas for electricity generation improves air quality and helps cities comply with NAAQS for sulfur oxides and particulate matter, according to the Alliance. Groups such as the Consumer Energy Alliance emphasize the fact that Coloradans saved nearly $12.4 billion over 10 years due to lower natural gas prices in the form of lower home utility bills.

READ — All-Electric Houses On the Rise — Colorado Homebuilders Embrace Alternatives to Natural Gas

Perhaps the most impressive point is one the Institute for Energy Research (IER) has been driving since just before Earth Day’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2020, and just prior to the pandemic when people hunkered down and reduced travel, which led to reduced transportation emissions. IER highlights, using EPA data, that between 1970 and 2021:

  • U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) increased 292%.
  • vehicle miles traveled increased 191%.
  • energy consumption increased 59%.
  • and U.S. population increased by 46%.

During the same period, total emissions of the six principal air pollutants dropped by 73%.

Even with the increased use of our natural resources in almost every sector, U.S. air pollutant measurements are lower today than 50 years ago. It might very well be the greatest energy, economic and environmental success story you’ve never heard.

What’s Next

Despite the state’s efforts, Colorado remains in severe nonattainment. In October 2022, the Air Quality Control Commission heard from state agencies concerned about ozone and GHG pollution, with state officials touting measures planned to improve air quality. They include an Advanced Clean Trucks rule, modeled on California standards, which require large trucking fleets to incorporate cleaner energy models.

There are also rules designed to reduce the use of fossil fuels for heating and cooling homes and buildings. Officials also said there will be further regulations designed to limit emissions from oil and gas production.

What’s key for the business communities and governments to remember is that economic development and environmental quality are not mutually exclusive and do not need to be at odds with each other. Colorado has proven that steps to produce the energy we need, while protecting our cherished environment, is achievable.

While some may cite environmental regulations and mandates as the only road to America’s improved air quality, technology and innovation, spurred by visionary entrepreneurs have provided solutions time and again to our most pressing problems. Perhaps they are the ones to consult to clear the air on Colorado’s emissions.

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Jon Haubert Hb Legacy Media CoJon Haubert is the publisher of ColoradoBiz magazine. Email him at [email protected].