The Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday that, together with the Department of Justice and the State of Colorado, it had reached an air-pollution settlement agreement with Noble Energy that could ring up $70 million in fines and overdue upgrades to its operations in the state.
The news was celebrated as a victory for clean air, but the numbers attached to the deal soon had some industry watchdogs scratching their heads.
The settlement proposal is based on inspections performed in January and February of 2012, which resulted in a complaint that the company’s storage tanks were improperly equipped and that they were emitting ozone-producing gases. Specifically, the vapor control systems on the company’s storage tanks were inadequate and were leaking what are known as volatile organic compounds or VOCs into the air.
As the Denver Post reported, the settlement is sort of a big deal:[blockquote]The company’s tank batteries were emitting thousands of tons of volatile organic chemicals a year, contributing to the region’s ozone pollution problem, according to an analysis by regulators.
Houston-based Noble agreed to evaluate its 3,400 tank batteries in the Denver-Julesburg Basin and make needed upgrades.
The basin stretches from Denver to the Wyoming border.
Noble produced the equivalent of 21 million barrels of oil and gas in 2014 from the basin. Only The Woodlands, Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum produces more, according to state data.
“It is a precedent-setting settlement because it takes a basinwide approach,” assistant U.S. Attorney General John Cruden said Tuesday. “It is a systemic solution.”[/blockquote]
The Justice Department reports that the upgrades and monitoring Noble has agreed to do would cut emissions by more than 2,500 tons a year. But as the Post points out, the industry is letting loose 576 tons of those emissions a day — or 207,560 tons per year.
So, the celebrated settlement would mean emissions could dip by only as much as five days’ worth of the gas the industry releases into the air over the state each year.
Noble notched revenues of $5.1 billion and profits of nearly $1 billion last year. It is the largest oil and gas operator in Colorado.
The fine levied on the company would be $5 million. Colorado’s share would be $1.5 million.
The proposed settlement is subject to a 30-day public comment period and final court approval. Comments can be submitted at the Department of Justice website.
Photo of infrared footage of a leaking gas tank via Hy-Bon.com