Colorado air quality regulators are ramping up efforts to slash planet-warming and ozone-forming emissions from oil and gas operations.
On Monday, the state Air Pollution Control Division laid out a broad plan for how it wants to incrementally cut the release of methane, a greenhouse gas, and volatile organic compounds, which contribute to ground-level ozone, from oil and gas wells, storage tanks and transmission pipelines.
The potential rules could require oil and gas companies to check and repair methane leaks more frequently, obtain permits during the first 90 days of drilling, monitor methane emissions continually and report emissions directly to the state, among other potential requirements.
Emissions from oil and gas wells account for about 12 percent of the state’s total release of greenhouse gases, according to the state’s best estimate, which it has acknowledged is flawed. But the industry is the top producer of volatile organic compounds along the northern Front Range, a region that has failed to comply with federal air quality standards for more than a decade. When volatile organic compounds mix with nitrogen oxides and sunlight, it can produce ozone. Several counties across the Front Range score an “F” by the American Lung Association for unhealthy ozone levels, which can exacerbate respiratory health issues like asthma.
Garry Kaufman, director of the Air Pollution Control Division, said he believes emissions from oil and gas facilities are far too high.
“It’s not acceptable,” he said during a hearing in Denver Monday.
The effort to rewrite the regulations comes after Democrats, who swept control of the state legislature and governor’s office in 2018, passed legislation calling on the Air Quality Control Commission to find ways to reduce emissions from oil and gas operations. Many of the steps the commission is taking are required by law. Other efforts are not required by law, including a proposal to require a preconstruction permit during the first 90 days of drilling and greater pollution control requirements based on proximity to homes and businesses.
The law also calls on the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the industry and issues drilling permits, to update its rules. There are currently over 6,000 permits awaiting the commission’s approval. Many of these permits will be on hold until the commission completes the new rules.
During a public meeting Monday, several people said they wanted the commission to adopt rules that more directly protect public health and safety.
“We’re going to see a dramatic decline in emissions from these facilities,” Kaufman responded. “That, in turn, is going to protect public health and the environment.”
The Department of Public Health and Environment is also finalizing a peer-reviewed report looking into the health risks of living near oil and gas wells.
The commission plans to hold public meetings in Broomfield, a community that recently passed a six-month oil and gas moratorium, and Grand Junction, a city near the Piceance Basin in one of the state’s most conservative counties. Many of the rules will not take effect until 2020 and 2021.
Oil and gas industry representatives had mixed reactions to the proposed regulations.
Lynn Granger, executive director of the Colorado Petroleum Council, said the group is still analyzing the proposals and plans to participate in the rulemaking process. Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said the proposals are are sweeping and extreme.
“The practical effect of these proposals could essentially result in a statewide permitting moratorium – just the thing officials have publicly disavowed,” Haley said in a written statement. “It makes you wonder if scientists are in charge or keep-it-in-the-ground activists?”
This story was updated with comments from oil and gas industry representatives. It was also updated to specify the northern Front Range, not the entire Front Range, is out of compliance with federal air quality standards.