New air-quality rules will tackle toxic oil and gas emissions in Colorado in the coming years.
The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission adopted regulations Friday that will increase leak detection and repair inspections at oil and gas facilities and cut methane emissions and air pollution across the state.
The rules will also give the oil industry more flexibility in how it cuts emissions with production-based reductions.
"The Air Quality Control Commission’s vote to increase the rate of leak detection and repair inspections for all impacted communities is critically important for Western Colorado,” Roger Steen, chairman of the Western Colorado Alliance’s Oil and Gas Committee, said in a news release. “All wells need to be inspected for leaks and all people deserve protections from toxic emissions, no matter where they live. These rules protect people, keep our air clean and reduce methane emissions to help us limit the impacts of climate change.”
Every oil and gas well in the state will be inspected at least once a year under the new rules, almost doubling the number of inspections.
Companies will have to inspect wells that produce more than 20 tons of oil and gas monthly, as well as those near disproportionately impacted communities and within 1,000 feet of homes and schools.
All other wells will be on schedules that vary from bimonthly to quarterly inspections.
“It’s really the oil and gas industry itself that is required to do this inspection and these leak detection and repairs. They are required to keep to a schedule and report that to the state,” said Matt Sura, an oil and gas attorney who represents Western Colorado Alliance, a Grand Junction-based grassroots organization. “The state doesn’t have nearly enough oil and gas inspectors to be able to go to every one of these locations as frequently as they need to be inspected.”
To help with the lack of inspectors, the regulations allow for faster approval of technologies that can detect leaks from oil and gas facilities, including cameras that can find often invisible gases in real time, Sura said.
The new inspection and repair rules will curb almost half of the 140,000 metric tons of methane emissions the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air Pollution Control Division calculated the oil and gas industry must cut every year to reach the state’s 2030 emissions goal.
“The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report confirmed what a lot of us have been really concerned about for many, many years that methane is a really large contributor to greenhouse gas issues and high ozone levels,” said Gwen Lachelt, executive director of the Western Leaders Network, which supports pro-conservation elected officials in the West. “Because we live under the largest methane cloud in North America, it is really important to ratchet down on the emissions that we’re experiencing in the San Juan Basin.”
The new rules also create a regulatory program that allows the oil and gas industry greater discretion over emission cuts. Reductions will be determined according to the intensity of production with less restrictive cuts for smaller operators than large companies.
Beginning in 2023, small operators will be allowed to emit roughly three times more emissions than larger producers, according to the regulations. Annual emissions for all operators will decrease over the next 10 years.
“The commission’s adoption of an emissions intensity program, the centerpiece of this rulemaking, is the first of its kind at the state level and allows operators the flexibility to reduce emissions proactively and innovatively, rather than via top-down mandates which could have hindered or slowed reductions by imposing a one-size-fits-all approach,” Lynn Granger, executive director of the American Petroleum Institute Colorado, said in a statement.
“Even prior to this rulemaking, Colorado’s natural gas and oil industry was on track to meet its 2025 Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap targets, and the implementation of the emissions intensity program will ensure we meet our goals for 2030,” Granger said.
The program will remove another 55,000 tons of methane emissions from oil and gas facilities annually, according to Air Pollution Control Division estimates.
Some of commission’s new rules will go into effect next year while others will not until 2023.
The set of eight new regulations will prevent the equivalent of almost 5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere every year. They will also remove more than 8,000 tons of volatile organic compounds, which have been shown to be harmful to human health, released into the air by oil and gas facilities.
“Ensuring that we have a handle on all emission sources is really going to be important going forward,” Sura said. “We can’t afford to have the oil and gas industry having leaks go undetected and unfixed for years, which is what the current regulations allow.”
Gov. Jared Polis signed the Climate Action Plan to Reduce Pollution into law in May 2019, requiring Colorado to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.
According to the state’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Roadmap, which was released in January 2021, the oil and gas industry needs to curb its emissions roughly 36% by 2025 and 60% by 2030 to meet Colorado targets.
In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the U.S. to regulate methane emissions for oil and gas production.
The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission’s new regulations focused on reducing methane pollution in part because it is 25 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.
Sura said curbing methane emissions is also about economics.
“It is in the interest of the oil and gas industry to find and fix these leaks because what is leaking is the product they’re hoping to sell,” he said. “Over time, you’re actually saving money by finding these leaks and fixing them and keeping that product in the pipeline where it belongs rather than in our atmosphere.”
The next round of oil and gas rulemaking will take place in January and February when the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission considers regulations that would govern abandoned wells and the financial commitments of oil and gas companies.
For now, environmental advocates will celebrate the progress.
“This was a huge step forward for the state of Colorado meeting its greenhouse gas goals, as well as addressing both local air pollution and regional haze and ozone,” Sura said.