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Colorado pitches even more “intensity” caps on oil and gas to help fight ozone

Environmental groups hit air regulators’ plan for no enforcement, too much wiggle room
Oil field workers are silhouetted while working to plug an orphaned oil and gas well on Aug. 23, 2023 in Broomfield. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado air pollution regulators want to meet Gov. Jared Polis’ demands for a 30% cut in ozone precursors by limiting oil and gas companies’ emissions of nitrogen oxides to a per-barrel limit called an “intensity” cap.

The oil companies would have flexibility in how they lower their emissions for every 1,000 barrels of oil produced, whether by switching from diesel fuel to natural gas for generators and drilling equipment or finding ways to electrify machinery traditionally driven by dirtier fossil fuels. Colorado air and oil and gas regulators have previously slapped intensity standards on methane leaks that contribute an outsize portion of greenhouse gas emissions.

The state oil and gas industry says it largely welcomes the intensity program for nitrogen oxides, which combine with volatile organic compounds and cook under intense sunlight to create the northern Front Range’s violations of ozone and smog standards. Oil and gas producers are willing to cut pollution, but want choices in the most economical and practical ways to comply, said Michael Paules of the American Petroleum Institute Colorado.

Colorado’s air will see benefits from a full array of regulatory measures imposed on oil and gas in recent years, Paules said, because many of the controls wind up cutting both greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide as well as ozone precursors.

“So greenhouse gas and ozone mitigation overlap,” he said.

The state Air Quality Control Commission is considering the nitrogen oxide (NOx) intensity cap as part of its final votes for 2023, ruling on staff recommendations aimed at meeting Polis’ call for 30% cuts to ozone precursors by 2025 and 50% cuts by 2030.

Environmental advocates, meanwhile, have blasted the state proposal in pre-meeting filings, saying the intensity rules could waste years in the effort to come into EPA compliance, without real enforcement.

Under an ozone intensity limit, regulators would cap the amount of NOx that could be released per thousand barrels of oil equivalent produced. Most of the NOx at oil and gas sites is produced by drilling and production machinery.

Environmental advocates protest that such rules may actually allow overall NOx in Colorado to increase – NOx per barrel might go down, but oil companies can increase drilling and production to the point where the total released goes up anyway.

They also object to the regulators’ proposals for meeting environmental justice requirements. The rules propose tough limits in areas the state calls “cumulatively impacted communities,” but those areas are urban and unlikely to ever face oil and gas drilling, environmental groups said. Meanwhile, ozone from drilling in the EPA-approved term for “disproportionately impacted communities,” affecting a far larger area, will drift into all communities of the Front Range, they said.

The distinction between “cumulative” and “disproportionate” was made up by state air pollution staff, and “effectively creates a two-tiered system of justice” that leaves behind many communities already suffering from asthma, heart problems and other impacts from ozone, argues Earthjustice and a coalition including GreenLatinos and Protogete.

Finally, opponents of the new rule say there is little enforcement built into the proposals. Regulators won’t find out if companies have exceeded NOx limits until after the ozone season has passed, and the only recourse is for the companies to promise to cut NOx more in the following season. The EPA has already placed nine Front Range counties in the “severe” category for toxic ozone violations, they note; by the time any enforcement is done on the new NOx regulations, Colorado will have failed new EPA deadlines for compliance.

State regulators advocating for their draft rules said the NOx standards are only part of a multiagency effort to comply with Polis’ early 2023 order to better combat ozone precursors. The per-barrel caps on NOx being debated this week were set based on realistic oil and gas production projections for coming years, state officials said in an interview. There’s little chance economics would push oil and gas companies to burst through those projections and create more NOx, they said, and API Colorado said it agreed with that outlook.

Regulators will measure NOx and watchdog the companies, said Jessica Ferko, the Air Pollution Control Division’s planning and policy program manager. “We have our existing robust compliance and enforcement program that would be able to support the enforcement of these rules.”

Also this week, the AQCC was scheduled to make a final decision about cutting ozone produced by gas-powered lawn and garden equipment.

The Regional Air Quality Council and environmental advocates like CoPIRG have proposed a summer season ban on institutional and commercial use of gas lawn mowers and blowers, as well as a sales ban on new equipment in some Front Range counties. They say plenty of clean electric-powered equipment is now on sale to replace the dirtier engines that produce a significant amount of the Front Range ozone problem in hot summer months.

The Air Pollution Control Division staff, which supplies information and rules drafts to the commission, has recommended only the use ban, not the sales ban. Not enough reliable electric-powered equipment is yet available for parks, schools and commercial users of lawn gear, the staff has said.

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