Boulder County Public Health hails new oil and gas regulations

Group says rules are a momentum-shifting victory in rule making process

An automated emissions monitoring system at the Boulder Reservoir.
An automated emissions monitoring system at the Boulder Reservoir.

The Colorado Air Quality Control Commission approved new rules designed to minimize state-wide emissions from oil and gas operations on Thursday.

Boulder County Public Health hailed the decision as a major victory in the ongoing debate surrounding the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s congruent rulemaking process following the passage of Senate Bill 181.

“(Thursday) was a milestone,” Jill Hunsaker Ryan, executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, wrote in a statement. “We are already looking ahead to achieve further reductions of emissions at oil and gas sites through our next rulemaking. The department intends to build on this momentum.”

From the perspective of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, however, the new rules are overly restrictive and ineffective. Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, suggested “exciting innovations” around tankless production, electrification, as well as new leak detection and repair technologies, would allow the industry to reduce its own emissions without overly burdensome regulation that could put smaller producers out of business, and drive oil and gas operations outside of Colorado, even outside the country, where similar environmental protections don’t exist.

“Rules that significantly increase costs, especially on small businesses, yet provide little to no emissions benefits, are unnecessary and problematic,” Haley wrote in a statement. “This industry has done more to reduce emissions and improve Colorado’s air quality than anyone. The engineers, geologists and scientists who work in this industry and focus on these issues every day deserve significant credit for what they’re able to achieve.”

While the oil and gas industry reduced the number of spills and leaks it was responsible for after the state Legislature increased penalties and enforcement efforts for oil and gas violations in 2015, according data from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the number of leaks detected by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment increased from 17,254 in 2017 to 23,866 in 2018, 280 of which were delayed getting repaired.

For the members of Boulder County Public Health as well as anti-fracking advocates those numbers were still too high, especially when considering several reports linked these excess emissions to the front range’s inability to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Administration’s air quality standards for the past 15 years — an issue that recently resulted in the ozone status of Boulder county and eight other northern Colorado counties being downgraded from “moderate” to “serious.”

While that designation will apply more stringent air quality regulations to the non-attainment area, that area does not include areas of northern Weld County with significant oil and gas developments. The new rules approved by the Air Quality Control Commission on Thursday would apply those federal regulations across the entire state.

“We’ve had tighter regulations in the non-attainment area for awhile, but controls statewide were really important,” said Cindy Copeland, the air quality specialist for Boulder County Public Health. “For Boulder County in particular, the northern portions of northern Larimer and Weld counties weren’t held to those tighter control and the monitoring we have at Boulder County Reservoir shows that we’re heavily impacted from emission coming from the northeast.”

The exact specifications of the new state rules still need to be finalized, but the Air Quality Control Commission clearly directed the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to increase permitting, leak inspection and emission reporting requirements.

In terms of permitting, the new rules eliminate an existing 90-day window that new oil and gas facilities can operate in before filing for a permit and require all facilities are permitted before any exploration and production begins.

In terms of inspections, the new rules require operators who emit more than two tons of volatile organic compounds each year submit to twice-a-year leak detection and repair at well production sites, as well as either quarterly or monthly leak detection at sites within a 1,000 feet of occupied structures.

The new rules also set more stringent control requirements for volatile organic compounds emissions from storage tanks and require new oil and gas facilities to control hydrocarbon emissions from sampling and measurement activities, as well as from the loadout of storage tanks to trucks and expand new inspection requirements.

As for emissions reporting, the rules require oil and gas operators to provide a comprehensive annual emissions report for oil and gas facilities and enhance record keeping requirements for emissions at wells across the state.

“The objective is simple—minimize emissions at the source,” Garry Kaufman, director of the Air Pollution Control Division, wrote in a statement. “These new rules represent months of hard work and communication with affected communities. They will slash emissions, make Colorado’s air cleaner and improve the quality of life for Coloradans across the state, including those citizens that live or work near oil and gas sites. They’re reasonable, cost-effective, innovative, and absolutely necessary. And we’re just getting started.”

The fact that officials from the Air Quality Control Commission and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment have been so zealous about the new rules, Copeland said, is a positive sign moving into the Air Quality Control Commission’s next round of rule making in 2020, which will address carbon emissions and public complaints, among other issues.

Even Anne Lee Foster with Colorado Rising, one of the more outspoken anti-fracking advocacy groups, said the lastest rules coming out out of the Air Quality Control Commission has them felling “cautiously optimistic” for the future Colorado Oil and gas Conservation Commissions round of rule making that will address permitting, alternative siting, cumulative impacts and mission change.

“It was a new day at the commission in that they finally acknowledged the enormous amount of peer reviewed science and public outcry to reign in oil and gas and get Colorado air quality back in compliance,” she said. “We’d love to see the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission take the same approach.”