Environmentalists: Air quality rules softened at behest of oil/gas industry


Anti-fracking activists are claiming that state officials have watered down a new set of proposed air quality regulations in response to pressure from the oil and gas industry.

The draft regulations, being prepared as Colorado becomes the first state in the nation to update its rules in response to new Environmental Protection Agency standards, are expected to be presented to the state Air Quality Control Commission on Nov. 21.

While the new regulations are expected to be tougher than existing requirements in many areas when it comes to how oil and gas companies monitor and reduce airborne pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and methane, some environmental groups say that a Feb. 28 version of the proposed rules had more teeth than a subsequent Oct. 2 draft, and that the industry’s pull with state regulators had something to do with the changes.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity to address this on a number of levels, and this is an extremely weak effort,” says Matt Sura, an attorney representing the groups Weld Air and Water and Grand Valley Citizens Alliance. “So far, the state has indicated that it doesn’t want to be a leader in this area.”

According to those groups and others, key ways in which the state’s Air Pollution Control Division watered down the draft regulations include:

• Instead of requiring a Leak Detection and Repair program for all gas components, as outlined in the Feb. 28 draft, the Oct. 2 version only requires such a program for gas streams that have at least 10 percent VOC content by weight, and there is a new exemption for downstream compressor stations, where most methane emissions occur.

• While the early draft called for operators to control tank emissions with the best available technology, to prevent venting that results in harmful emissions, the later version allows companies to come up with their own plans certifying that they will minimize emissions, after the industry complained that the initial rules were too prescriptive.

• Infrared cameras were required at wells and tanks to detect VOCs and methane in the original draft; the new proposal allows operators to use “audio, visual, olfactory,” or AVO, as an acceptable form of testing for emissions at wells and tanks that have between six and 20 tons per year of VOCs, effectively exempting a high percentage of production sites from having such cameras.

Sura called AVO tests “meaningless” when it comes to detecting methane, since it is invisible and odorless.

“It allows some unqualified person to get out of his truck, look around, sniff, and get back in his truck,” Sura says. “There are methane detectors that you and I can get on eBay for $35.”

And even if industry complains that the cost of buying infrared cameras is exorbitant, he claims, there are thirdparty operators that already own the cameras and can perform the testing. And he says stopping leaks should be in the companies’ best interests, since lost product equals lost profit.

“There are some costs, but those pay for themselves over time,” he says. “The larger operators are already doing most of what we’re asking for.”

Sura adds that taking “a complete pass on methane” flies in the face of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s stated commitment to reducing methane emissions — which have been found to be 34 times as potent as carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas — to as close to zero as possible.

Among the other changes, he says, is a new provision that would reduce the number of permits oil and gas companies are required to obtain, hurting the state’s ability to track sources of VOCs. Currently, according to Sura, if companies want to build a facility that will emit more than five tons of VOCs per year, they must get a permit from the state, but the new draft rules would only require permits for operations that emit 25 tons or more each year, “because industry wanted there to be less paperwork.”

He says the draft regulations lack any heightened health and safety requirements for facilities built near schools and homes, and requires no inspections for storage tanks that emit less than 20 tons of VOCs per year. All should be inspected at least annually, Sura says, noting that 55 percent of the VOCs along the Front Range come from oil and gas operations, and since 2010, the number of counties in Colorado exceeding the EPA’s permissible ozone levels has gone from two to 10.

He questions why the new rules would give companies 15 to 30 days to repair leaks once they are detected.

“That’s absurd,” Sura says. “We need to respond to known gas leaks within hours, not days.”

Other issues that are expected to prove contentious when the Air Quality Control Commission begins considering the draft regulations later this month include the definition of what amount of emissions constitutes a “leak;” the extent to which information on inspections is made public; whether operators will have to retrofit existing condensate tanks to keep them from venting; and the period in which companies must connect the natural gas they are producing into a pipeline. (Since natural gas is so plentiful and cheap, industry often pays closer attention to capturing the more lucrative oil from a well and lets the natural gas flare off, raising questions among environmentalists about why a natural resource is being wasted and emitted into the air.)

When asked whether the new draft rules meet the governor’s goals for methane emissions reduction, Megan Castle, Hickenlooper’s deputy director of communications, said via email, “The administration’s goal is for Colorado to have regulations that are a national model in protecting public health and the environment. The energy boom has been good for Colorado’s economy; we want to make sure our air regulations are good for the environment. Getting methane emissions to zero or as close to zero as we can get them remains an administration goal.”

Christopher Dann, communications liaison for the Air Pollution Control Division, declined to comment on any of the complaints about the changes to the draft regulations, saying that there are many versions of the rules floating around, and they are likely to change further before the commission’s Nov. 21 meeting.

“It would be inappropriate for us to pre-empt the commission,” he told BW, explaining that division staff won’t discuss the evolving language until the final draft is presented to the ninemember group, which is expected to have a three-month public comment period before making a final decision on the new regulations in February. “Comparing one draft to another is not something we’re going to do.”

Dann acknowledges Hickenlooper’s statements about reducing methane, and says the draft regulations will be designed to address methane as well as VOCs, but he stopped short of saying the two will be placed on equal footing, and declined to comment on the newly added exemption for downstream compressor stations, where most methane leakage occurs.

“The intent is to address emissions from oil and gas operations, and methane is one of those emissions,” he says.

When asked why division staff asked to delay the initial hearing on the rules that was originally set for August until the commission’s November meeting, Dann says there was “a lot of progress and momentum and we wanted to continue the stakeholder process.”

And in response to speculation that the delay was due to points of contention around the earlier, stricter version of the regulations, he says, “I don’t know what specific points of contention there may have been. I’m sure there have been many, but that’s part of any rulemaking process, any stakeholder process.”

Dann declined to discuss the removal of the infrared camera requirement from wells and tanks that have between six and 20 tons per year of VOCs, but he said the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and his division have recently acquired a combined six new infrared cameras, and a newly formed team of inspectors is using them daily.

The Nov. 21 meeting of the Air Quality Control Commission will be held at 9 a.m. at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment building at 4300 Cherry Creek Drive in Glendale.

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