West Slope deserves smart air protection

Starting Wednesday, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission will hold three days of hearings on proposed new air quality rules for the oil and gas industry.

The Daily Sentinel supports the proposed rules. We believe they are needed to protect the air quality of this region and they do not create an undue burden on the industry. Additionally, if we adopt these tough-but-reasonable rules now, it will make it more difficult for radical groups to push fo much less-reasonable, industry-crippling regulations in the future.

Ozone problem is growing

One critical reason to support the proposed rules is that Mesa County is approaching non-attainment status for ground-level ozone. If ozone levels consistently exceed federally approved levels over a period of several years, we will be a non-attainment area, the cleanup will be more difficult and federal authorities will mandate more restrictive rules to reduce ozone. Already, ozone in the county is at levels that may begin to affect plant production, according to one agriculture expert.

Oil and gas operations are not major contributors to ozone in Mesa County now, but they could become so in the future if large drilling operations such as that proposed south of Whitewater become reality. The proposed state regulations address this by establishing new rules for the release of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which can form ground-level ozone.


What the rules do

The rules address leak detection and repair. They would require energy companies to monitor air emissions at wells, compressors, storage tanks and related equipment to detect any leaks of VOCs and hydrocarbons. The provisions require the leaks to be repaired quickly, usually within a few days.

Equally important, the rules would apply to all hydrocarbons, especially methane, which is a powerful greenhouse gas. They would require capture of most methane and other hydrocarbons, rather than allowing them to be released into the air.

Some companies are already capturing as many hydrocarbons as possible because they can sell them.

The rules don’t set different standards for different parts of the state, as some Western Slope officials have suggested. We don’t believe that’s necessary. But the rules do have different requirements based on the size of operations, so smaller operators wouldn’t have the same testing and monitoring requirements as larger companies.


Energy Industry Support

Three major energy companies that operate in Colorado — Encana, Noble Energy and Anadarko — worked with members of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s staff and environmental organizations to craft the proposed regulations.

It made sense for Encana to join in that effort, said Lem Smith, director of U.S. Government and regulatory affairs for the company. “We saw an opportunity first to do the right thing,” he said. “We should control emissions in a smart, cost-effective way.” The proposed regulations, he added, help the industry “achieve regulatory certainty under rules that have quantifiable, achievable benefits.”

WPX Energy is the primary company still operating in that gas-dense Piceance basin. In documents filed with the Air Quality Control Commission, WPX said it supports the rules. However, it asked for several amendments.

One suggested amendment would reward companies that demonstrate low leak rates with less-frequent monitoring requirements. Another would extend until Jan. 1 2016 the date on which well production facilities would have to meet the most stringent leak detection rates, primarily because equipment to meet those standards is not yet available.

The suggested WPX amendments appear reasonable. They maintain the integrity of the proposed regulations. But they also allow for common-sense implementation.


Sensible rules for all of Colorado

It’s important to understand that the proposed rules weren’t drafted by anti-drilling zealots. In fact, some environmental organizations believe they don’t go far. But others support them.

We believe they are sensible rules for Colorado that will help protect residents’ health and can help prevent this county from facing federally mandated rules to clean up our air.


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