Colorado regulators OK rule to track oil and gas emissions beginning with wells’ construction

A state commission has approved a rule that will require companies to monitor emissions from oil and gas sites earlier and more frequently than is currently done as Colorado officials implement a law overhauling how the industry is regulated.

The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission voted unanimously Wednesday night for a rule to track emissions  from the start of construction of a well and over the first six months of production. The monitoring of so-called preproduction, a phase that can produce high emissions of chemicals and health complaints from the public, is a new requirement.

The proposal is part of the implementation of Senate Bill 181. The 2019 law changed the state’s mission from fostering oil and gas development to regulating it in a way that protects public health, safety and the environment.

The monitoring rule, thought to be the first of its kind in the country, builds on changes the Air Quality Control Commission made in December to require more frequent inspections of oil and gas equipment statewide. Companies will have to start monitoring programs for new wells starting May 1.

During public hearings last week, speakers acknowledged the efforts to monitor pollutants during phases of oil and gas production currently not covered, but said more specific objectives and criteria for technologies and practices are needed to produce useful data. Some speakers urged the AQCC to put the state or an independent third party in charge of devising the monitoring plans, not the oil and gas companies.

What the state air pollution control division calls “high-frequency” monitoring will start with well construction and  continue through drilling, hydraulic fracturing and what’s called flowback, which is when groundwater and fluids used in fracking are brought to the surface and disposed of. Companies will have to get their monitoring plans approved by the state division.

Pollutants that will be monitored include methane, a potent greenhouse gas; benzene, known to cause cancer; and other chemicals that form ground-level ozone. The ozone pollution levels in several counties along the Front Range exceed federal standards.

WildEarth Guardians previously criticized the proposal as vague and unenforceable. The rule requires no level of “quality, accuracy consistency, adherence to methodology, or substantive compliance” that would ensure that any useful data would be collected, the environmental organization said in written testimony.

The Western and Rural Local Government Coalition, which often differs from environmental groups when it comes to stricter statewide oil and gas regulations, also found fault with the proposal on technical grounds. Kirby Wynn, Garfield County’s oil and gas liaison, said in an email the the proposed rule “lacks crucial design and data quality/consistency criteria needed if the data are to have value to inform future emission reduction opportunities.”

The AQCC revised some of the rule’s provisions. The changes include the requirement to consult with local governments that want to give input and to notify them when a company’s monitoring plan is approved.

Another change requires collecting emissions data for 10 days instead of the original three before the official monitoring begins so that reference points can be established. The AQCC also revised provisions to make the data more accessible to the public.

Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, said in an email that while he appreciated the commission’s efforts to refine the proposal, he remains concerned “that this is ultimately too open-ended and not likely to provide the robust data needed to ensure protection of clean air and public health.”

Members of Colorado Communities for Climate Action expressed support for giving local governments opportunities for input.

“Today’s decision will mean that local communities across Colorado’s West Slope and Front Range will be better protected from dangerous air pollution and from climate change. We will all have better data on air pollution and stronger protections against the damage caused by that pollution,” George Marlin, Clear Creek County commissioner and vice president of the organization, said in a statement.

Lynn Granger,executive director of the American Petroleum Institute-Colorado, commended the staff and commissioners for adopting “largely feasible, practical improvements” to the state’s air-quality regulations.

“Stakeholders spent most of the past year in diligent pursuit of an outcome that will benefit public health, safety, welfare, the environment and wildlife, and we believe that this evening’s results will advance those foundational goals, which all Coloradans share,” Granger said in a statement.

Addressing the calls by some for a more structured program, Garry Kaufman, director of the state air pollution control division, said the rule is groundbreaking.

“There isn’t a template for it and we’re dealing with technologies that are evolving rapidly,” Kaufman. “We wanted to make sure that we drafted a rule that was sufficiently flexible to allow for different technologies.”

As more is learned about the monitoring systems, there might be opportunities in the future to tighten up some of the requirements, Kaufman said.

“This is an ongoing process,” he added. “We never expected it to be a one-and-done rule making.”

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