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Colorado first in the nation to regulate oil and gas industry’s methane emissions

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Sarah Gilman | Feb 25, 2014 10:10 AM

The home of the West’s most pitched battles over oil and gas development is once more in the news for major energy policy reforms. On February 23, Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission voted in significantly stricter statewide rules governing air pollution from oil and gas development, including the nation’s first state-level controls on the industry’s emissions of methane – a much more potent greenhouse gas than CO2.

The rules, which officials will begin implementing this year, “require companies to detect leaks and fix them (and) install devices that capture 95 percent of emissions — both volatile organic compounds and methane,” reports Bruce Finley for the Denver Post. State officials estimate that they will reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds (or VOCs), which contribute to the formation of lung-damaging, smog-making ozone, by 92,000 tons, and methane, by tens of thousands of tons. The measures are part of the state’s efforts to bring the urban area’s air into compliance with federal health standards.

Air quality hasn’t been helped by a recent drilling revival, driven in part by advances in the oil and gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, wherein a mix of water, sand and chemicals are fired into the ground to stimulate hydrocarbon production. With rigs moving closer to more communities, several have banned or otherwise voted to restrict the practice in hopes of avoiding accompanying air and water pollution, as well as public health impacts. A recent study in Environmental Health News has stoked those fears with the finding that women who live near gas wells in rural Colorado are more likely to have babies with congenital heart and neural tube birth defects.

frack free banner 2
A banner obscures the state capital building at an anti-fracking rally in October, 2012.

With many enviros staking out hardline positions – calling for more local bans and even a statewide moratorium on fracking – the state, the industry and some environmental groups have been working to find common ground on how to lesson industry’s impacts. The new air quality rules are a good example, brokered as they were with the Environmental Defense Fund and the major energy companies Anadarko, Noble and EnCana.

But not everyone is on board: fracktivist tweets during last week’s rulemaking hearings called environmentalists supporting the proposal sellouts. And as I reported last month, the state’s two major industry trade associations, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Colorado Petroleum Association, had objected to major parts of the rules, arguing that the commission didn’t have the authority to regulate methane and was unfairly singling the industry out for its greenhouse gas emissions. They also argued that the parts of the rules that crack down on emissions of VOCs should continue to apply only in parts of the state that have been officially designated as zones with significant air quality problems, rather than being extended throughout the state. That would have essentially meant that energy companies would be allowed to pollute more in areas with cleaner air.

Coming from COGA, at least, the position seemed like a bit of an about-face, given CEO Tisha Schuller’s recent work to up the industry’s environmental cred from within. And fortunately for the rules’ advocates, the groups never got much traction, despite hours of fraught testimony. The rule proposal passed 8-1, with the methane provisions staying intact on a 5-4 vote, and the statewide provisions, on a healthier 7-2 margin. "Everything in our proposal is a common-sense thing (industry) can do," Garry Kaufman, deputy director of the state health department's air pollution division, told EnergyWire. "It's not causing some kind of existential threat for the industry in Colorado."

Sarah Gilman is associate editor of High Country News. She tweets @sarah_gilman. Image courtesy Flickr user Steve Harbula.

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