In the 14 years since my family moved to Colorado, our state’s air quality problems have gone from bad to worse. More fracking for oil and gas, more fossil fuel combustion, and more wildfires as the planet overheats and our region dries out literally adds fuel to the fire. Each wildfire season breaks new records.
Two years ago, my father-in-law died of a heart attack on a particularly bad air day during his visit here to Colorado. Last week I was truly fearful for the health of my parents who were visiting while the Denver metro region had the distinction of the worst air quality on the planet. My mom, who has lung problems, had to remain indoors and still had trouble breathing. Even my teenage daughter has asthma that doctors say is likely due to the poor air quality.
This is a common story for many of us who live along the Front Range. Poor air quality in Colorado is so persistent that we just broke our own record with more than 53 air quality action days since May 1.
Who is responsible for Colorado’s bad air quality?
If you read the Air Quality Alerts or see one of CDOT’s road signs, you might blame yourself. Information from CDPHE encourages individuals to limit driving and not to mow their lawns. Blaming individuals is a tactic coined by the fossil fuel industry. They gaslight people into carrying the burden of this crisis while entrenching our society in policies and products that make it near impossible to live a zero-emission lifestyle.
The real source of the air quality problem: fossil fuel companies and the politicians and regulators who yield to their demands to maintain the status quo.
While we all have a role to play, these are big systemic problems that require big systemic solutions. Placing the blame and responsibility of our poor air quality and climate crisis on individual Coloradans ignores the fact that the majority of pollution comes from a small number of big polluters.
For example, just 119 polluters emit 36% of statewide emissions. Colorado is home to more than 53,000 active oil and gas wells and tens of thousands more that are abandoned or non-producing. Emissions from these wells account for a staggering 45% of total VOCs emissions, 22% of nitrogen oxides emissions and 12% of greenhouse gas emissions. The foul-smelling Suncor oil refinery in Commerce City regularly exceeds pollution limits, contributing significant heat-trapping emissions and toxic pollution to the nearby most polluted zip code in the United States - 80216.
Fossil fuel companies have known for decades about their toxic pollution and the worsening climate crisis, which is burning the west and blanketing us in smoke. They have chosen to use their wealth to sow doubt and confuse the public about the science and to influence corrupt politicians to prevent passage of laws and rules that would hurt their bottom line.
In May, the International Energy Agency released a landmark report stating, “there is no need for investment in new fossil fuel supply in our net zero pathway.” Despite this news, Colorado still plans to increase fracked oil production by 86% in the next decade and allow polluters like Suncor to conduct business as usual; putting Colorado only track to reduce its emissions 3.4% by 2030, a far cry from Colorado’s goal of 50% by 2030.
The truth is we will only fix our air quality problem and the climate crisis if we transition off fossil fuels. The IPCC’s recent 6th Assessment says the window to keep temperature rise under 1.5C and prevent the worst is closing.
So, if you are asking yourself who is responsible for Colorado’s bad air quality, look to our elected leaders and regulators who continue to turn a blind eye to this reality and the industries that put profit over people and planet. Then demand change.
Micah Parkin is a mother of two and a founder and executive director of 350 Colorado, a statewide organization of over 20,000 Coloradans working to address the climate crisis and transition to a sustainable future.