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Colorado First State to Limit Methane Pollution from Oil and Gas Wells

Air pollution from fossil fuel production has contributed to worsening smog and climate change
Wattenberg Gas Field


Drilling a well in the Wattenberg Gas Field, north of Denver, Colorado, USA.
Credit: Plazak/Wikimedia Commons

On Sunday, Colorado became the first state in the nation to limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations.

After four days of hearings, the state's Air Quality Control Commission adopted rules that will require oil and gas companies to find and fix methane leaks, as well as install technology that captures 95 percent of emissions of both volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which cause air pollution, and methane.

Parts of the state are already exceeding U.S. EPA limits for ozone, and the oil and gas industry is a large contributor of the VOCs that lead to ozone formation.

While other states have imposed limits on VOCs due to air quality concerns, no other state has regulated methane leaks from oil and gas.

"I think these rules are a model for the country," said Dan Grossman, the Rocky Mountain region director for the Environmental Defense Fund, which had pushed for the inclusion of methane in Colorado's new air quality rules.

If other states follow Colorado's lead, such rules could improve natural gas's climate change footprint.

Natural gas is primarily composed of methane, a gas with about 30 times the global warming power of carbon dioxide. While electricity from natural gas is generally regarded as better for the climate than electricity from coal, the more the natural gas system leaks, the less climate benefit it has.

As natural gas booms nationwide, the amount of methane leaking from the natural gas system -- from wellhead to homes -- has become a hot-button issue. Numerous studies have questioned EPA estimates of this number, saying they are too low (ClimateWire, Feb. 14).

Shift to a 'zero tolerance' position
And in Colorado, as natural gas production has expanded into new areas, the technique used to get that gas out of the ground -- hydraulic fracturing -- has also become a political football, with several towns banning the practice within their borders over concerns of effects on water quality.

The state's governor, John Hickenlooper (D), has largely supported industry and panned local efforts to control the practice, saying the state has regulatory authority, not towns.

But as oil and gas operations have become more controversial in the energy-rich state, Hickenlooper also threw his support behind the stricter air quality rules, calling for "zero tolerance" on methane emissions.

In a statement released Sunday, the governor expressed his support for the rules.

"The new rules approved by Colorado's Air Quality Control Commission, after taking input from varied and often conflicting interests, will ensure Colorado has the cleanest and safest oil and gas industry in the country and help preserve jobs," Hickenlooper said.

The governor has said in the past he wants to strike a balance between the state's need for a healthy oil and gas industry and citizen concerns about health and safety.

The rules, which were supported by some of the state's major oil and gas producers, appear to be an attempt to do that. They were crafted collaboratively with input from energy producers and the Environmental Defense Fund and have been supported by a number of environmental groups.

"The fact that these rule were the product of collaborative negotiations between leaders in industry and EDF means a lot," said Grossman, who expressed hope that similar processes could take place in other states.

Encana Corp., which has more than 4,000 wells in the state, supported the rules, along with Anadarko Petroleum Corp., Noble Energy Inc. and DCP Midstream Denver.

Producers applaud regulatory certainty
"These are tough but reasonable rules that provide us as an industry and as a company with regulatory certainty going forward," said Doug Hock, a spokesman for Encana.

Ted Brown, senior vice president of Noble Energy, also issued a statement supporting the rules: "We all want clean air, and we believe keeping methane in the pipeline and out of the air is the right thing to do. We believe these new rules will help improve air quality and enable responsible, economic energy development," Brown said.

Saving methane from leaking should also result in a financial benefit to the industry, since it should end up with more product to sell, Hock noted.

During a four-day public hearing in front of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission, which made the final decision on the rules, the Colorado Oil & Gas Association (COGA) and the Colorado Petroleum Association argued against the methane controls in the rules.

These groups also pushed for companies to be exempt from frequent inspections if their previous inspection had found few leaks.

But their arguments did not lead to significant changes. On Sunday, the commission announced its final decision on the rules, leaving them largely intact from the draft proposal, which was released in November and included strict standards for both leaking methane and VOCs (ClimateWire, Nov. 20, 2013).

Doug Flanders, director of policy and external affairs at COGA, did not answer specific questions about the rules but issued a statement on them.

"The new rules accomplish much, which we support. Unfortunately, we were not successful in ensuring that the rule accommodates the differences in basins and operators. Nevertheless, we are committed to working with our operators, our communities, and the state to successfully and effectively implement these rules," Flanders said.

A news conference on the new rules will be held today. The final version was not available at press time but will be posted on the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's website.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500

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