Colorado begins new phase of reining in emissions from oil and gas

The Air Quality Control Commission adopted rules that require oil and gas companies to inspect more equipment for leaks more frequently.

Patrick Murphy, Boulder County Public Health employee, uses a FLIR infrared camera to check for gas leaks at a operating well pad in eastern Boulder County. The Air Quality Control Commission wrote new rules on Dec. 19, 2019 requiring more frequent inspections. (Photo by Ted Wood/The Story Group.)

State air quality officials on Thursday adopted new oil and gas regulations that will require companies to more frequently inspect equipment for planet-warming and smog-forming gases, with the most stringent requirements for operators who are drilling near homes and schools. 

The nine-member Colorado Air Quality Control Commission wrapped up a three-day rulemaking in Denver after hearing from advocates, residents and oil and gas representatives over the last week. The new rules are the first the commission has adopted since Gov. Jared Polis in April signed into law Senate Bill 181, which called on the commission to slash emissions from oil and gas operations. 

People on both sides of the heated debate say they were struck by the tone of the commission, which largely dismissed concerns from the industry that the regulations would increase the cost of doing business in Colorado. 

For advocates, this was seen as a welcome sign that a shift is underway in Colorado, a state that has seen a five-fold increase in oil production over the last decade. The $30-billion industry long has held considerable sway in the state legislature and in the former Hickenlooper administration. It acquiesced to 2014 methane regulations and used that as leverage to quash additional regulations by arguing Colorado has some of the toughest rules in the nation. 

“For so long they have ruled the roost,” said Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, of the industry. “The air commission is realizing they have a public mandate. The tables have turned.”

The industry had concerns about the tone of the Air Pollution Control Division.

“Unfortunately, politics can often get in the way of effective governance, and that’s what we saw in this rulemaking,” said Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, in a statement. He added, “The strident anti-industry tone from the APCD staff today during its rebuttal was striking and a departure from how we’ve done business in Colorado in the past.” 

The commission voluntarily went above and beyond what the Polis administration’s Air Pollution Control Division recommended, adopting a new requirement that some operators drilling within 1,000 feet of a home will have to inspect for leaks every month. 

Ahead of the hearings, some advocates said they would be surprised if the so-called “proximity” regulations were passed. The inspections, which the state estimates cost about $146 per hour, would be costly, industry representatives said. And according to Lynn Granger, executive director for the Colorado Petroleum Council, such requirements are “not grounded in science or data.”

Advocates point to the October state health study that found people who live within 2,000 feet of a home may be exposed to harmful gases at concentrations great enough to cause headaches, nosebleeds, nausea and respiratory issues. 

“If they can’t afford to take basic safety precautions, they shouldn’t be drilling,” said Sara Loflin, executive director of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, or LOGIC. 

The industry and some county commissioners pushed back on the proposed regulations, arguing that the costs of the inspections would be great and the reductions in emissions from low-producing wells would be little. 

Garfield County Commissioner John Martin said in a statement his community supports reasonable regulations to achieve clean air. But, he added, “We are disappointed in the Air Quality Control Commission’s decision to impose costly rules on low producing and low emitting wells in rural areas that will do little to improve air quality but will harm the economic well-being of our communities.”

In 2014, Colorado adopted the nation’s first requirement that oil and gas companies inspect their equipment for leaks, mostly using infrared cameras that turn what’s invisible to the naked eye into spewing plumes of gas. Since then, tens of thousands of leaks have been reported by oil and gas companies to the state and patched up. In 2018, oil and gas companies reported 23,866 methane leaks to the state. 

This video was used as part of the Air Pollution Control Division’s case recommending rules to increase leak inspections. The Air Quality Control Commission adopted those rules on Dec. 19, 2020. (Video courtesy the Air Pollution Control Division)

 

The new regulations will require companies to check and repair a wider range of equipment semi-annually across the state. The current baseline inspection rate for most wells is annually, with smaller wells and equipment exempt from annual inspections. 

 Other updates to the oil and gas rules will remove an existing regulatory provision that allows oil and gas operators to drill and produce for 90 days without an air pollution permit. Environmentalists consider this a lapse in regulatory oversight, but industry representatives argue is needed in order to provide the state with a realistic estimate of emissions once the well is online and producing.

Environmentalists want to see the state install continuous emissions monitors near drilling sites. Such monitoring is needed, they say, to detect short bumps in emissions that otherwise go unnoticed, such as the benzene spike recorded earlier this month outside the Bella Romero Academy with the state’s mobile lab. The state will begin discussing the possibility of continuous emissions monitoring next year. 

The new regulations come just days after the Environmental Protection Agency designated the northern Front Range region in “serious” violation of the federal Clean Air Act, which could bring with it even more regulations for the industry. 

The nine-county region has for 15 years failed federal air quality standards for unhealthy ground-level ozone, also known as smog. Oil and gas operators are the largest emitters of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, in the region, according to the state. VOCs mix with nitrogen oxides from automobile tailpipes and sunlight to form smog. 

The Air Quality Control Commissions is also working to cut emissions from other sources, including power generation and transportation, in order to achieve the state’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions 90 percent by 2050, compared to 2005 levels. 

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