Commerce City Pollution: A Friday Night Massacre in Colorado

By Phil Doe in Counterpunch, April 5, 2021 A Friday Night Massacre in Colorado

Last Friday night I listened to the state of Colorado and the Suncor Corporation vote as one against independent monitoring and public health analysis of the Suncor refinery’s massive air pollution.

The Suncor refinery’s nay vote was cast by its public relations flak, Brandy Radey. It was her opinion that since the corporation was already monitoring its own pollution independent verification was unnecessary. This is a little like Jeffrey Dahmer arguing he didn’t need a butcher’s license since he was already doing it, and doing it quite well, thank you.

Governor Polis’s representative, Heather Wuollet, thought it more important that money be directed to a state sponsored proposal to fix up old cars in the neighborhood since everybody knows they are such big polluters.  This is especially true, she intoned, in poor neighborhoods where clunkers abound.  There is no question the neighborhoods around the Suncor refinery are generally poor.  But how the miracle of clunker transubstantiation might be accomplished equitably with public money was not revealed.  Neither was the fact raised that Canadian owned Suncor refinery happen to be one of the two largest polluters in the state.  In 2019 it released about 900,000 tons of pollution into the Denver metropolitan area.  That pollution was the equal of the tail pipe emissions from all 118,000 new cars sold in the state that year. Clunker indeed!

Ms Wuollet’s opinion differs radically from her boss John Putnam’s, the deputy director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment.  Not long ago he said of the people living around the refinery that, “We definitely hear them…we are trying to collect more data…so that we can make science based decisions” to protect them. Putnam recently moved on to greener pastures, joining the Biden administration.But Ms. Wuollet’s immediate boss, Garry Kaufman, the head of the Air Pollution Control Division can still be found patrolling the hallways at the CDPHE.

Kaufman, another corporate lawyer known by detractors as belonging to the political caste of talking long, saying nothing, has also been assertive in the press about protecting the people. He points to the fines they’ve leveled against the refinery for its many people-poisonings as proof.  If you are of the neoliberal school that believes throwing a few coin at people after using them as punching bags is a form of protection then you may belong to his political caste.

Based on Friday night’s vote, in matters concerning air pollution and public health, the Polis administration has pivoted away from the need to know more to the position of needing to know not much beyond what Suncor tells it.

What was at stake in the FNM was how to spend $2.6 million in fine money from Suncor. The state had fined Suncor $9 million for repeated violations of its permits to rain benzene, hydrogen cyanide, sulfur dioxide, etc., etc., etc., down on the people. For this the state had sought and received high praise.  The state sought and received less attention when it gave most the money back to Suncor.

Five million dollars was returned to Suncor so it could hire somebody to figure out how to make its operation less of a threat to public health.

Suncor is the second largest corporation in Canada. Its primary business is mining tar sands, some of which are refined at the Denver refinery. The Suncor CEO makes a reported $12 million annually.  He lives 30 miles from the refinery.

As Lucy Molina, a mother of two teenagers, and a member of the citizen evaluation committee remarked: whose was the greater need, the people’s or the corporation’s?, for as she reminded everyone, most of the 20 proposals before them that evening could have been funded had the state not returned the $5 million to the perp.

They were here to fight over leftovers, was that an accident or the design she asked? She also questioned why the state and Suncor were allowed to vote? Was this not advertised by the state as a citizen directed effort, the first of its kind?The state and Suncor combined constitute almost 20 percent of the vote.

In the end, and despite the votes to not fund by the state and Suncor, the proposal to monitor the refinery survived for a second and final vote to be held on April 15. Known as the Cultivando proposal for the grassroots Latino organization that helped develop and sponsors the proposal, it chances of being funded are on life support. Although it is the only proposal that would continuously monitor pollution form the refinery, it is expensive at $1.7 million, most of it for state of the art air monitoring equipment, which could be used into the future if the state truly wanted to continuously monitor as required by state law. The costs would also drop tremendously in out years since equipment costs would have already been paid.

This week a story broke in the Colorado Sun that Mr. Kaufman had directed his staff to not model for pollution from polluters as required by law. They were instructed to get the pollution permits out the door, and worry about the pollution later. Three of the staff, all computer modelers, have gone whistle blower. Of course Mr. Kaufman deserves his day in court, but these are courageous acts that only those who have done it can fully appreciate.

This new information helps explain the state’s opposition to funding the Cultivando proposal. It also helps explain why 3 days before the FNM Mr. Kaufman sent several members of his staff to lecture the Citizen Selection Committee on all the great things his division was doing or going to do once they had the money to protect them. One staff member spent much time explaining a bill before the legislature to monitor 3 toxins at several of the state’s worst polluters, including Suncor. She did not mention that under the bill’s timelines monitoring was probably 2 to 3 years out. Clearly, both the state and Suncor used these presentations to insinuate there was really no need for the Cultivando monitoring proposal.

This is how you get a Friday Night Massacre in Colorado.

PHILLIP DOE lives in Colorado. He can be reached at:


 the nation directly subsidizes the deadly oil, gas, and coal industries with billions of dollars—estimates range anywhere from $10 billion to $52 billion annually—in tax breaks, bailouts, and other financial privileges. According to one evaluation, the U.S. currently spends 10 times as much on fossil fuel subsidies as it spends on education. On Thursday, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Ilhan Omar unveiled legislation that would change that.

The bill, dubbed the End Polluter Welfare Act, would eliminate $150 billion over the next decade in tax loopholes and federal subsidies for fossil fuel companies. It would do away with income tax credits for drilling and coal plant construction, tax breaks for energy firms, allowances for fossil fuel firms to pay below-market royalty rates for oil and gas production, and more. Some loopholes it would close are over a century old. The bill also proposes a ban on taxpayer-funded research and development programs for the fossil fuel industry.

“Climate leadership means confronting the oil, gas, and coal industries head-on, and the End Polluter Welfare Act is a key piece of the puzzle,” said Collin Rees, a campaigner with Oil Change U.S. “Ending deadly public giveaways to the richest industry in the history of the earth is long overdue, and this bill would be a tremendous step toward a just and equitable phase-out of fossil fuels.”


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Officials introduced the 2021 bill as Sanders chaired a Senate Budget Committee hearing on the cost of climate inaction, to which he invited CEOs of three major oil corporations. None chose to attend, which, lol. The 2021 measure has racked up six Democratic co-sponsors so far. It’s also won backing from 85 environmental, climate justice, and human rights advocacy groups—including Oil Change U.S.—who sent a letter to Congress on Thursday morning.

If this bill sounds familiar, it might be because representatives have been trying to get versions of it passed for a decade. But maybe this is its time to shine. After all, its introduction comes two weeks after President Biden released his infrastructure plan, which also proposed cutting subsidies to fossil fuel firms, albeit at a smaller scale. As Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen clarified last week, the administration’s plan would reduce subsidies $35 billion, which is a fraction of the Sanders-Omar proposal. But if Biden is serious about taking on the climate crisis, why stop at $35 billion?

“The End Polluter Welfare Act is key because it names and removes the broadest possible set of direct subsidies to fossil fuel production, making it clear that even $1 of public money supporting the Big Oil and Gas is too much,” said Rees. “Other plans to remove subsidies are less comprehensive and would let the fossil fuel industry retain its power to lie, delay action, and block solutions for too long.”

The new legislation should be a no-brainer. Research shows that removing financial incentives for continued fossil fuel production would decrease extraction and have huge benefits for the climate. Doing so would also because it would free up billions of dollars for the transition to a green economy, but Rees said that’s not the primary reason the legislation is crucial.

“[Fossil fuel] subsidies are nefarious primarily because of the political signal they send. It’s about government reconfirming every year that it still has the industry’s back,” he said. “The actual money involved is certainly germane and does matter, but the political impact of removing public support for the industry is massive and a key part of this fight.”

The legislation alone wouldn’t completely fix the problem of government handouts to fossil fuel companies. A study released last month showed that, in addition to pouring tens of billions of dollars directly into the fossil fuel industry each year, the U.S. also provides oil, gas, and coal companies with massive indirect subsidies by allowing them to avoid paying the true cost of the pollution, health risks, and other dangers with which they plague the planet.
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But ending the direct giveaways is a crucial component of the overall fight to phase out of fossil fuels. The fossil fuel market crash during the covid-19 pandemic made it clearer that fossil fuels aren’t even a safe investment, and climate scientists have spent decades sounding the alarm about how extraction needs to end to avert climate catastrophe. The longer we continue subsidizing the deadly industry, the longer it will exist, and the worse our climate consequences will get.Dharna NoorPostsTwitter

Staff writer, Earther