Colorado air-qualify officials have officially opened up another front in the state’s long-running oil and gas wars, kicking off what could be a lengthy, contentious rule-making process as the state continues an ambitious effort to overhaul its regulations.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment held the first of several public meetings on a set of new rules governing oil and gas emissions on Monday, July 29. The new rules, which are expected be finalized by the CDPHE’s Air Quality Control Commission before the end of the year, are one component of a sweeping regulatory overhaul required by Senate Bill 181, the oil and gas reform legislation enacted by Democrats earlier this year.
“We’ve seen a tremendous growth in the industry,” Garry Kaufman, director of CDPHE’s Air Pollution Control Division, told a crowd of representatives of environmental and industry groups. “I know that’s probably what’s attracted a number of you to this meeting — concerns over that growth. And those concerns are valid. We have seen a real explosion in growth of production through technological advances in Weld County and across the state. It’s something that we need to address.”
The AQCC’s new rulemaking is separate from what's being undertaken by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the state agency that directly oversees drilling. While the new COGCC rules will govern nearly all aspects of oil and gas extraction — including siting, production, flowlines, abandoned wells and more — the AQCC will be more narrowly focused on the emission of airborne pollutants from oil and gas facilities.
That’s not to say that the process will be simple. At Monday’s meeting, AQCC officials outlined a wide-ranging series of proposed changes to emissions rules, strengthening state regulations governing leak detection and repair at well sites, compressor stations, storage tanks, and other so-called midstream and transmission infrastructure.
CDPHE will hold a series of hearings and public meetings on the proposed regulations over the next several months. The first draft of the new rules will be made available in advance of a public meeting at the department’s Denver headquarters on August 22, and two additional meetings will be held in Broomfield and Grand Junction in September.
Those meetings could prove contentious, as environmental and community activists continue to pressure Colorado policymakers to crack down on an oil and gas industry they view as endangering public health and safety. Activists at Monday’s stakeholder meeting criticized the approach outlined by regulators during a public comment period, arguing that the proposed regulations don’t go far enough to achieve SB 181’s mission.
“It’s terribly irresponsible that frontline communities across Colorado are being exposed to fracking-related toxins like lab rats, when many others have employed the precautionary principle to protect their residents,” said Micah Parkin, director of activist group 350 Colorado.
On Monday, representatives of 350 Colorado and other grassroots environmental groups sent a letter to Governor Jared Polis, again urging the state to halt new oil and gas permitting during the implementation of SB 181. Applications for more than 450 new drilling locations are currently pending before COGCC regulators, who have rejected previous calls for a moratorium.
“New drilling permits have been approved with no consideration of public health or climate consequences,” reads the letter. “In many cases, these oil and gas operations pose serious threats to public health, safety, and the environment.”
In addition to COGCC approval, many new oil and gas facilities require air-quality permits issued by the APCD, and some activists last week pressed regulators to refuse to issue those permits as a way to block or slow down development. Agency officials pushed back, arguing that such a move wouldn’t be consistent with SB 181’s instructions to the agency.
“The ultimate goal in all of this is to protect public health and the environment,” Kaufman told activists. “The directive to us was to minimize emissions. We were not told to shut down the industry; we were not told to impose a moratorium.”
“This is a very aggressive set of control requirements,” he said of the proposed rules. “This is a substantial step to reduce emissions from the oil and gas industry.”
The AQCC’s rulemaking comes as Denver is again experiencing elevated levels of ozone pollution, continuing a years-long trend of declining air quality along the Front Range. Studies have shown that emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds from oil and gas facilities are one of the Denver metro area’s top sources of ozone pollution, accounting for up to 40 percent of local ozone formation on a given day.
In addition to such short-term, localized impacts, many activists who spoke at Monday’s hearing pointed to the long-term effects of continued fossil-fuel production on the world’s climate. House Bill 1261, climate legislation enacted by Democrats earlier this year, commits Colorado to a series of emissions reduction goals, including a 50 percent cut by 2030, and tasks the AQCC with implementing rules consistent with meeting those targets.
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Officials stressed Monday that those rules will take years to fully implement. Activists who have long been frustrated by Colorado’s regulatory approach to oil and gas development hope that Monday’s meeting is the beginning of a new chapter.
“I want to reiterate our hope and expectation that this rulemaking is different than other rulemakings,” said Jeremy Nichols, director of the climate and energy program at WildEarth Guardians. “We do hope that ultimately we get to a point where we see a big change in terms of how the state addresses emissions and starts to move — not away from better controls, but in addition to better controls, finds ways to better manage development and production.”
Regulators will formally present the new oil and gas rules at the AQCC’s monthly meeting on September 19, and could adopt them as early as December. The rulemaking is just one of several the commission will undertake following the passage of SB 181, HB 1261 and other climate and environmental legislation this year, and officials vowed to continue working to achieve the emissions cuts necessary to improve the region's air quality.
“While we can rightly say we’ve done a lot [and] we’ve had some successes, we can also say there is a lot more work to do,” said Kaufman. “We’re not anywhere close to being done with reducing emissions from this sector.”