State may become first to adopt methane rules

Colorado regulators will consider making the state the first in the nation to specifically target methane for detection and reduction in oil and gas operations.

Gov. John Hickenlooper announced the proposal Monday, and it is the product of talks between the Environmental Defense Fund and energy companies Encana, Noble Energy and Anadarko Petroleum. Its methane provisions target a substance considered more than 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas.

State officials say the proposal also would cut emissions of volatile organic compounds by about 92,000 tons per year, more than are produced by all cars in the state in a year. That would be about a third less VOCs than were emitted in 2011 by the oil and gas industry, the leading source of manmade VOCs in the state. These contribute to smog and ill health; one of particular concern, benzene, causes cancer.

The proposal grew out of the state Air Quality Control Commission stakeholder process in an advance of a new rulemaking on oil and gas emissions. On Thursday it’s scheduled to consider setting a public hearing on the proposal for next February.

“These proposed rules provide common-sense measures to help ensure Colorado has the cleanest and safest oil and gas industry in the country,” Hickenlooper said in a news release. “The rules will help Colorado prepare for anticipated growth in energy development, while protecting public health and the environment. They represent a significant step forward in addressing a wider range of emissions that before now have not been directly regulated.”

The Environmental Defense Fund says natural gas offers a carbon advantage over coal because it produces half the carbon dioxide of coal when burned.

“Tackling smog and climate pollution from the oil and gas sector is a critical part of making sure communities are protected and that the lower carbon advantage of natural gas doesn’t simply leak away,” said Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.

The proposed rule would require use of infrared cameras and other means to detect leaks from tanks, pipelines and other drilling and production facilities; monthly inspections of large emission sources; more stringent limits on emissions from dehydrator units near homes; and incorporation statewide of existing emission-reduction rules now applying only in areas in violation of pollution standards.

In a joint statement, Encana, Noble and Anadarko said, “This collaboration is a good model for developing effective regulations and activities to monitor, control and reduce methane leaks and VOCs. The process and increased accountability established by the proposal will provide transparency and build public trust.”

But Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Petroleum Association — of which Encana and Anadarko are members — voiced some discomfort in the behind-the-scenes nature of the talks leading to the proposal.

“That process was not open to the public or other operators,” he said. ” … We think that the transparent process is the best way to develop public policy, particularly in rulemaking.”

He said the Air Quality Control Commission will have to consider the costs versus benefits of complying with the proposed rules. He said the economics might be totally different for companies drilling for high-priced oil in northeastern Colorado than for ones trying to produce low-priced natural gas in western Colorado.

While it’s one thing to focus on VOC controls that have the side benefit of reducing methane emissions, it’s another to directly regulate methane, he said. Some operations, such as coal-bed methane development, may not produce VOCs, he said. Methane hasn’t been seen as a threat to health or regulated as a pollutant, and Dempsey said questions may be raised over whether the Air Quality Control Commission has the legal authority to specifically regulate methane.

Matt Sura, a former Western Colorado Congress activist now working as an attorney on oil and gas issues, said from what he’s seen so far of the new proposal, “it is vastly improved” over a previous draft release in early October.

He called the collaborative proposal “certainly a better starting place than we had seen previously.”

He said he understands the revised proposal reduces the amount of time allowed for leaks to be repaired after discovery to five days, down from 15 to 30 days in the prior draft. But that should be further reduced to a matter of hours within a quarter mile of homes or schools, Sura said.

“I think anybody, particularly those who live downwind of those facilities, agrees that if there’s a gas leak it should be repaired as quickly as possible,” he said.

He said the new agreement provides hope “that Governor Hickenlooper will stand strong and see this through to the end with some strong rules that Colorado can be proud of.”


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