Air-quality commissioners stand strong, adopt tough new rules
‘The companies will use these rules to make improvements that they’ll tout in years to come.’
The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission held fast at a hearing on Sunday, turning back efforts meant to thin proposed emissions rules that were hammered out over the last year and that are desperately needed to help raise the quality of Colorado’s air, which has failed for years to meet national standards.
“Today is a great day for… the health of our children and loved ones,” said Conservation Colorado Director Pete Maysmith in a release. “Colorado has seen an explosion of oil and gas drilling and these new protections will go a long way toward reducing ozone and methane pollution which contributes to climate change.”
The new rules, which were formalized after the hearing, aim mainly at cutting emissions that contribute to high-ozone levels and at limiting the release of climate-change-accelerating methane gas. The rules require oil-and-gas companies drilling in Colorado to use infrared cameras to detect leaks, install high-end valves and igniters to capture or burn off 95 percent of escaping gas and to more regularly and more promptly monitor and repair equipment.
The days leading up to Sunday’s hearing were marked by a series of public listening sessions and tense anticipation, where rumors of possible standoffs or last-minute compromises might cut the teeth of the proposed rules. The Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Colorado Petroleum Association trade groups, allegedly working on behalf of smaller drilling companies, pushed to cut back inspection-frequency requirements, to exclude methane from the gases the rules would govern and to limit the reach of the rules to areas of the state where air quality has been lowest.
In voting down those proposals, commissioners cited strong input from residents all around the state and an obligation to act on the science of climate change.
Meetings and more meetings
People involved in the negotiations seemed relieved and exhausted Sunday.
“It has been an unbelievable amount of work,” said Matt Sura, an environmental attorney who works with community organizations. Sura’s face was one of the group of faces this year that seemed to appear wherever Coloradans gathered to talk about ozone, brown cloud, greenhouse gases and volatile compounds. “This is a victory for everyone, for the people in the room — the industry representatives and the environmentalists — but also for the activists in the communities across the state,” he said. “I think this demonstrates that there’s a real role for the grassroots in these kinds of proceedings, which affect everyday life.”
The rule-making process began nearly 12 months ago, launched by Governor John Hickenlooper and the state’s Air Pollution Control Division, which has worked as support staff for the Air Quality Commission members. Although there have been complaints since the draft rules became public that the process lacked transparency, commission announcements, meetings and proposals stacked up all year and especially last fall when the November deadline for draft rules approached and Hickenlooper extended the public hearings and negotiations period through February.
From the beginning, the process featured official public meetings and unofficial informational sessions held around the state. Garry Kaufman, deputy director of the air pollution division, said the commission worked very hard to conduct an open process and that the public interest personally conveyed to the commission and the crowds that streamed into the hearings suggest those efforts were successful.
“Hundreds of people came to many of those meetings,” he said. “They were packed, and the commissioners encouraged any of the stakeholders to call them personally or to email with concerns.
“I understand that not everyone gets what they want in these kind of negotiations, but I feel it was one of the most open processes I’ve ever been involved in.”
Oil, gas, stressed lungs
As many as ten counties in Colorado now fail to meet federal air-quality standards. The American Lung Association has given “F” grades to Arapahoe, Douglas, Jefferson and Larimer counties and “D” grades to Boulder, La Plata and Weld counties. The Association counts the number of days particulate matter percentages in the air exceed national standards. Ten days over the limit land a county an “F” grade.
The low grades in Colorado underline the insidious nature of the problem posed by ozone. Colorado is not a stereotypically industrial state, where heavy milling and manufacturing and large city populations cloud the skies. But the Mountain West region’s sunny and dry climate can make any emissions toxic, boosting ozone and sending even increasing numbers of Colorado’s outdoor-loving, active population to hospital emergency rooms, wheezing for oxygen with lungs stressed from the air.
For decades, efforts to safeguard air quality have centered around coal-fired power plant and automobile emissions but, as many of the people close to the negotiations this year in Colorado explain, the regulations on those emissions and the technology used to limit them have grown strong and generally successful. But oil-and-gas drilling has mostly escaped that kind of attention, especially as it relates to ground-level ozone. Not so much anymore. In recent years, as drilling operations have moved closer to population centers, oil-and-gas emissions testing has begun in earnest — and it has become clear that drilling is letting loose large amounts of the kinds of emissions that raise ozone levels.
That’s why negotiations over the rules in Colorado were steered on one side by representatives of the Environmental Defense Fund and on the other side by representatives of Anadarko, Noble Energy and Encana — the “big three” oil-and-gas firms doing most of the drilling in Colorado.
Dan Grossman, Rocky Mountain regional director for the Defense Fund, said his group has been negotiating with the oil-and-gas industry on air and water regulations for four years and that they were encouraged when the state’s pro-industry governor proposed at a Colorado Oil and Gas Association meeting that the state could reach a zero-methane emissions standard. That speech set a goal and sent a signal, he said.
“We got very excited by that. We spent nine months knocking on doors afterward, trying to get industry to talk with us about emissions and air quality. In the end, the Big Three opened their doors, and the rule recommendations we made were much stronger as a result.”
The social license to operate
But what turned out to be productive involvement of the Big Three set off alarms for some environmentalists. The fact that oil companies appear to be signing up for regulations suggests there must be something wrong with the rules, they argue.
Grossman says the oil companies realize that accepting regulations and being part of the process shaping them is good for business.
“They realize that the social license to operate here is a little bit in jeopardy,” he said, referring to the fact that residents of five Colorado cities in the northern Front Range gas patch have voted to ban or temporarily halt drilling in the last two years and that citizens this year have introduced an initiative for the November ballot that would grant local communities across the state the right to regulate drilling.
“As a political issue, the oil-and-gas industry sees things shifting, and they have large investments here — and at least two of those companies are looking to expand operations. They’re looking to use good faith to tamp down concerns.”
Grossman and others, including oil and gas executives, also point out that industry leaders like Anadarko are already looking to streamline and centralize operations, to cork leaks and capture methane. They concede that it’s obviously good business not to be losing your product to the air.
“They’ll use these rules to make improvements that they’ll tout in years to come,” said Sura at a meeting on the rules hosted by the League of Women Voters last October in Centennial.
But Sam Schabacker, Mountain West Region director for Food and Water Watch, is one of the observers who is calling the rules weak. He said the fundamental problem is that they fail to put a cap on the number of wells that can be drilled. There may be less leaking at each well but there will be more wells leaking and more drilling rigs coming and going all across the state.
“This is good political cover, but any gains made for the environment by the new requirements will be offset by expansion. The sheer number of wells companies will be drilling will mean emissions will continue to be a problem,” he said.
“Yes, that’s true,” said Sura. “Our work isn’t done. We’ll look at the implementation plan for the rules and in two years we’ll be talking about it again. We’ll see how we’ve done. That’s just how it works.”
[ Image of Larimer County fracking by Julie Rideout. “I’m sure Gene never dreamed when he bought this house years ago that one day the view out his back window would include this, but it went up this week 400 feet from his house.”]
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