Advocates and industry gird for battle over new oil and gas emissions rules

As Colorado writes new emissions regulations, expect debate over when and where oil and gas companies have to search for leaks and patch them up.

Patrick Murphy, Boulder County Public Health employee, uses a FLIR infrared camera to check for gas leaks at a Crestone operating well pad in eastern Boulder County. (Photo by Ted Wood/The Story Group)
Patrick Murphy, Boulder County Public Health employee, uses a FLIR infrared camera to check for gas leaks at a Crestone operating well pad in eastern Boulder County. State regulators are proposing new rules for leak detections and repairs. (Photo by Ted Wood/The Story Group)

Colorado air quality officials are poised to write new rules next week for toxic and planet-warming gases emitted from oil and gas operations. 

The Polis administration is proposing to increase the frequency and scope of oil and gas leak detections and repairs across the state, a move prompted by a new law signed in April that called on regulators to slash emissions of greenhouse gases and volatile organic compounds from oil and gas operations. 

The nine-member Colorado Air Quality Control Commission began hearing public comments on the issue Tuesday and is expected to finalize new rules next week. Public hearings are scheduled Dec. 17-19 in Denver. 

Ahead of hearings, an oil and gas trade group is planning rallies in Rifle and Loveland. Environmentalists are using social media to encourage followers to “speak out for clear air” at the hearings. Written comments already submitted to the state depict industry calling for less burdensome regulations and advocates calling for more protections for public health. 

“The [Air Pollution Control Division’s] analysis continues to overstate emission reductions and understate the cost per ton of emissions reduced,” wrote oil and gas attorneys, including Chris Colclasure, the former deputy director of the Air Pollution Control Division who now works for the Denver firm Beatty & Wozniak. 

“We appreciate the strong rules proposed by the Air Pollution Control Division, but additional protections are needed when oil and gas facilities are allowed close to homes or schools,” said Sara Loflin, executive director of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, or LOGIC. 

The new oil and gas rules will be the first to be enacted since Senate Bill 181, which overhauled oil and gas regulations in Colorado, was signed into law in April. This year, lawmakers also updated the state’s climate plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions 90 percent by 2050, compared to 2005 levels. 

The state is drafting its new, tougher rules as it awaits an expected decision this month from the Environmental Protection Agency to downgrade the northern Front Range’s poor air quality from “moderate” to “serious.” The designation will force the state to enact new permit requirements for more oil and gas operations in the area stretching from Douglas County to the southern half of Weld County, the state’s top oil and gas producing region. 

The northern Front Range “nonattainment” area has failed federal standards for smog since 2004. Smog, which comes from oil and gas emissions and automobile tailpipe emissions, can contribute to heart attacks and respiratory ailments like asthma. 

The downgrade was welcomed by Gov. Jared Polis, who withdrew a request submitted by former Gov. John Hickenlooper to buy the state another year to come into compliance before the federal crackdown ensued. 

The administration’s proposed rules for oil and gas emissions would move the needle even more as the state seeks to clean up its air and tackle climate change. 

But that won’t happen without a fight. A key point of contention is over how frequently oil and gas operators should be required to use infrared cameras, or other equally or more reliable technology, to detect and repair methane leaks from their equipment. 

The Air Pollution Control Division, which regulates air emissions, is proposing to require companies check for leaks and repair them two times per year across the state. The current requirement for most wells is once per year outside the northern Front Range nonattainment area. The proposal would also include a broader range of equipment to inspect, including small storage tanks that emit less than 2 tons of VOCs per year, which would for the first time also need to have emission control devices installed. 

The state acknowledges the proposed regulations will be a cost for the industry. It generally costs about $146 per hour to do an infrared inspection. But these inspections, the state says, will detect more leaks and help improve air quality and drive down greenhouse gas emissions. 

But the industry opposes statewide, semiannual leak inspections and repairs. Oil and gas attorneys said increasing the number of leak detections for low-emitting wells in areas that meet federal ozone standards will not achieve substantial emission reductions. And the limited reductions that do occur, the attorneys said, will not be cost effective.

Meanwhile, advocates are pushing for monthly leak inspections and repairs in areas where wells are built within 1,000 feet of an occupied building. Operators would have just days to repair the leaks under their proposal, which the state could ignore or include in the final rules. 

Advocates point to the Colorado Department of Public Health’s October study that found people who live within 2,000 feet of oil and gas drilling may be exposed to concentrations of toxic gases sufficient to cause nosebleeds, headaches, nausea, respiratory issues and other health problems. The agency also recently reported a spike of cancer-causing benzene levels near the Bella Romero K-8 Academy in Greeley, which is about 1,200 feet from a 24-well pad drilling site. 

But the industry, which has downplayed the findings in the recent health study, saying the study’s model used many assumptions and its worst-case findings do not represent typical conditions, is pushing back on the request. It says such a request would not benefit public health and that the costs of such regulations are being lowballed. 

Other updates to the oil and gas rules would remove an existing regulatory provision that allows oil and gas operators to drill and produce for 90 days without an air pollution permit, which some consider a major lapse in the state’s oversight of the industry. 

The state is also asking operators to submit annual emissions reports looking at a wide range of sources, including the drilling phase, venting, flaring, storage and the well unloading process.

Since Colorado adopted methane regulations, tens of thousands of methane leaks have been detected and repaired, according to state reports. But it’s unclear how much methane, a greenhouse gas, is released in Colorado. The state has been sending air samples to a California lab for an analysis that has long underestimated concentrations of methane, according to a recent story by Colorado Public Radio.  

This week’s public comment hearings began tonight in Rifle and will continue tomorrow in Durango at 6 p.m., and Monday in Loveland at 4:40. The meetings will be streamed here

John is a contributing writer for The Colorado Independent, covering energy, environment and criminal justice. Email him at Herrick.johnny(at)gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @herrickjohnny.

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