Colorado air quality regulators unanimously voted Thursday to adopt sweeping new standards to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas facilities, which now apply to Southwest Colorado.
“This vote is an important step toward changing Durango’s unfortunate reality as the ‘methane hot spot of North America,’ which is antithetical to future goals we have for the city,” Durango City Councilor Dean Brookie said in a prepared statement.
“Of even more significant and urgent importance, methane impacts the health of everyone living and breathing in our community, and is curable now. State leaders are doing the right thing by enacting stronger rules for the entire state of Colorado to cut methane and other pollutants from oil and gas.”
In 2014, Colorado became one of the first states in the country to implement regulations to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations, calling on companies to fix leaks or install new equipment to better capture the greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.
The rules, however, were made stricter in 2017 but applied only to oil and gas facilities on the Front Range. The new regulations adopted Thursday by the Air Quality Control Commission not only call for stricter measures to reduce methane emissions, they now apply across the entire state of Colorado.
“Western Slope Coloradans live under a methane cloud that threatens both our health and environment, and so we need the same air quality protections as those living on the Front Range,” Mark Pearson, executive director of San Juan Citizens Alliance, said in a prepared statement.
“We appreciate that the commissioners have listened to our concerns, and thank the AQCC for enacting strong methane regulations with enhanced leak testing and repair requirements, as well as stronger standards for storage and reporting.”
The new rules call for more frequent inspections of facilities within 1,000 feet of homes, schools or public buildings, and require companies to further prevent leaks of liquids and emissions from storage tanks.
In La Plata County, there are about 3,500 active wells. According to a study from a coalition of environmental groups, about 17,500 people and 18 educational facilities are located within a 2,640-foot radius of an oil and gas site.
“We have a lot of homes and schools within 1,000 feet of oil and gas facilities, and industry now has to increase their inspections and also repair leaks much faster than required in the past,” said La Plata County Commissioner Gwen Lachelt, who testified in Denver in support of the new rules. “It was really an historic decision.”
Companies must also create an annual report on methane emissions and develop performance-based standards, among other measures.
On Dec. 11, the state of Colorado held a public meeting in Durango about the proposed rules, in which more than 100 people showed up to voice their support of the new regulations.
“The oil and gas industry is integral to our community, and while they provide jobs subject to the ups and downs in the industry, the big bucks don’t end up here,” said Julie Cooley, who has lived in Durango since 1983. “What ends up here is the methane.”
Many people pointed to the “Four Corners methane hot spot” as a prime example of why the regulations were needed in Southwest Colorado.
In 2014, satellite images taken between 2003 and 2009 captured a 2,500-square-mile “hot spot” of methane releases over the Four Corners. Suspicions were later confirmed that energy extraction practices were largely responsible.
The new regulations haven’t been without detractors, mainly from people with the oil and gas industry. At the public meeting in Durango, for example, a worker with a local oil and gas company said the proposed rules’ true intent was to shut down natural gas production in the state.
“This room is heavily unrepresented with oil and gas because we’ve all had to go work elsewhere,” said Carla Neal. “These proposed rules are not about health, but another thinly veiled attempt to shut down oil and gas, which they’ve been doing pretty well at.”
Since methane rules were first enacted in Colorado in 2014, production of natural gas and coalbed methane has gone up, according to state records.
From 2013 to 2018, natural gas and coalbed methane production has gone up about 15%.