Colo. sets national precedent for air quality - and climate

Mark Brownstein

There may not be a lot to cheer about in Congress these days, but when it comes to protecting air quality, there is real progress being made in the states. Today, for example, officials in Colorado took a major step toward tackling smog and climate pollution from the oil and gas sector. Governor John Hickenlooper, supported by three leading energy companies and the Environmental Defense Fund, proposed the nation’s first oil and gas regulations to control methane emissions, a potent greenhouse gas that is especially powerful over the near-term.

The proposal tightens existing air controls in the state and targets – for the first time – additional sources of hydrocarbon emissions associated with the development of oil and gas, including methane and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), pollutants that contribute to the creation of ozone and smog.

Update 2/25/14: Colorado adopted the first rules in the nation to directly reduce methane and VOCs from oil and gas, which will remove 90,000 tons of smog-forming VOCs and 100,000 tons of methane annually.

The Air Pollution Control Division began this rulemaking in response to Gov. Hickenlooper’s call for “zero tolerance” on methane emissions and in order to address chronic problems with ozone pollution along the Front Range. The state’s booming oil and gas industry is the largest source of man-made VOC emissions in the state.

If adopted, these air regulations have the potential to dramatically improve Colorado’s air quality and directly address results from a recent University of Texas study, showing methane emissions from equipment leaks and valves may be much higher than previously thought. They would also represent the strongest regulations in the nation for reducing air pollution from the oil and gas sector, with a litany of firsts:

  1. First state to directly target methane reductions from oil and gas production. Some existing state and federal emissions rules reduce methane indirectly, for example by mandating VOC reductions, but no one as of yet has gone after methane directly.
  2. First state to require Leak Detection and Repair (LDAR) on all wells statewide to control equipment leaks of “fugitive” methane and VOC emissions. Colorado would also be the first to require monthly inspections for certain well sites known to be the largest emitters.
  3. First state to require operators to take preventative measures to avoid venting from well maintenance activities, such as liquids unloading (the stage when active wells are cleared of water and other liquids inhibiting production).
  4. First to require a statewide retrofit of all valves (also known as pneumatics) used on well sites to control routine operations. Companies would be required to change all “high-bleed” pneumatics to lower emission “low-bleed” devices. Where electricity is available at certain well sites, Colorado would also be the first to require “no-bleed” pneumatics.
  5. First state to require that existing storage tanks comply with pollution limits that only apply to new tanks under federal law.

Gov. Hickenlooper and the state’s regulators should be applauded for their efforts in bringing forward these commonsense measures, which were agreed to and supported by EDF and Anadarko Petroleum, Encana, and Noble Energy – three of the state’s largest oil and gas companies. The support of these corporations shows that what Colorado is proposing is a common sense solution that can be done.

Colorado’s leadership is only the latest example of states charting a path forward on pollution standards. This month Wyoming promulgated one the nation’s most robust programs for detection and repair of “fugitive” emission leaks. Ohio is also considering such a program. Last year, Texas engaged in a major overhaul of its oil and gas regulations pertaining to well construction, a crucial protection for groundwater and a model for other states.

So what’s next for Colorado? These proposed air emissions rules will be formally proposed to the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission by agency staff on Thursday, November 21. Public hearings will follow in February 2014, culminating in final regulations by the month’s end. There’s a long road ahead, and we are anticipating significant opposition from the more intransigent oil and gas companies and their trade associations. It is critical that Gov. Hickenlooper and our industry partners remain resolute and see these groundbreaking developments through to conclusion. Our air and climate are at stake.