Colorado could once again lead the way on oil and gas regulations if the state approves proposals meant to control emissions from well sites earlier than is now required under a mandate to revamp rules.
The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission opened a hearing Thursday on proposed rules, including ones that would require monitoring emissions and air quality from the start of construction of a well and over the first six months of production. The nearly continuous monitoring of so-called preproduction, a phase that can produce high emissions of chemicals and health complaints from the public, would be a new requirement..
“Colorado, like it did in 2014, being the first to implement methane rules, now is once again at the head of the pack on figuring out ways to incentivize new technology and address oil and gas emissions. It’s a big deal,” said Jon Goldstein with the Environmental Defense Fund in Denver.
In 2014, Colorado became the first state in the nation to pass regulations limiting methane emissions from oil and gas operations. A federal methane rule, which has been loosened by the Trump administration, was modeled on Colorado’s regulation.
Garry Kaufman, director of the state air pollution control division, said he’s not aware of any other state with the kind of monitoring program Colorado is considering.
“These monitoring devices have been deployed in other states on a case by case basis, but it’s not something that’s been required of the whole industry, that I know of,” Kaufman said.
The rule is part of the implementation of the Senate Bill 181, approved in 2019 to overhaul the regulation of oil and gas. The 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.
Both the air quality control commission and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission are writing rules to carry out the new mandate.
The air quality board proposal would require nearly continuous, or what Kaufman calls “high-frequency,” monitoring of oil and gas sites as soon as well construction starts. Monitoring would 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.
A 2019 report by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment found that people living within 2,000 feet of oil and gas sites could be exposed to harmful chemicals and suffer short-term health impacts in certain situations. While most exposures for the chemicals were deemed safe, some, including benzene, known to cause cancer, exceeded recommended levels at times during fracking and flowback.
“The monitoring will be new. There are requirements that are applicable to these sites during construction, but most of them are under the auspices of the COGCC. Our requirements typically start when the wells start production,” Kaufman said.
Closing that gap in oversight is essential to addressing health problems, including headaches, bloody noses and other ailments, said Susan Speece, a scientist and former college professor and chancellor who lives in Broomfield. She has helped collect air-quality samples near well sites in the city.
“There were 461 health complaints between Nov. 4th of last year and July 21st of this year” in Broomfield, Speece said in an interview. “They clustered on the same days, which tells you a lot. It means there were specific days when something was happening and causing people to have negative impacts.”
Besides limiting emissions that can cause health problems, the monitoring is aimed at reducing ground-level ozone and greenhouse gases. A 2019 law set targets and dates for cutting climate-changing emissions.
And Colorado remains under pressure to bring ozone pollution levels along the Front Range in line with federal standards. The commission is also looking at stronger controls on large engines at well sites.
Kaufman said companies will have flexibility in choosing the equipment to monitor emissions, but will have to get the air pollution control division’s approval of their plans.
The industry has worked for nearly a year with the air quality commission’s staff and other stakeholders on the proposed rule and while some differences remain, the feeling is that “in general we’re in a fairly sound place,” said Lynn Granger, executive director of the American Petroleum Institute-Colorado.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association said in an email that it supports several points of the commission’s proposal. It said that Colorado operators are using the latest technology and practices to cut emissions and comply with some of the strictest regulations in the nation.
However, the trade group said the continued air monitoring after production starts should be 90 days, not six months because requirements to detect and repair leaks kick in once a well is producing.
Elected officials from rural and Western Colorado criticized what they see as a one-size-fits-all approach to regulating oil and gas when their areas don’t have the same pollution problems as the Front Range.
“We want to be sure the rules reflect the true air quality here and not create burdensome, cost-prohibitive regulations for our businesses when they are unnecessary,” said John Justman, a Mesa County commissioner.
But Bonnie Smeltzer, who lives in Battlement Mesa in Garfield County, said the rules should be the same across the state. The retiree said her community is surrounded by oil and gas wells and residents have reported issues and health problems for years.
“When SB 181 was passed, were we ever happy. We said, finally, our voices have been heard,” Smeltzer said. “We feel that the rules for air quality and safety and well-being should be as strict over here on this side of the mountain as they are on the other side.”
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