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March 13, 2014

Colorado Air Quality Rules a Step in the Right Direction

CO-air-quality-hearingPhoto by Sarah White, courtesy of Conservation Colorado.

By Catherine Collentine, Sierra Club Beyond Natural Gas Campaign Representative, Colorado

On February 23, Colorado's Department of Public Health and Environment Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) finalized a set of air quality regulations that make Colorado the first state in the nation to regulate methane emissions statewide. The rules were finalized following five days of public comment and stakeholder testimony that included many concerned citizens.

Sierra Club Rocky Mountain Chapter members joined other community members, industry representatives, and elected officials to voice their concerns to the AQCC. One RMC member, Tara Meixsell, traveled across the state to make her voice heard. That's Tara, below at right, with Catherine Collentine and Matt Sura, an attorney representing a group of affected and concerned citizens at the rulemaking.

Collentine-Sura-Meixsell

Tara had testified before the AQCC six years earlier in a similar rulemaking process, but the resulting rule had been limited to the Front Range, and she saw the need for strong, statewide rules to come out of this process. In her three-minute testimony, Tara spoke on behalf of her neighbors who are "dead, ill, or slowly dying and watching their country homes being turned into industrial sites as property values plummeted." She spoke of those close to her, saying "these people are not environmental activists; they are everyday people" and imploring the AQCC to this time pass rigorous statewide air quality standards with no exemptions.

Tara's heartfelt testimony on behalf of affected landowners in Colorado was heard along with testimony from more than 100 other community members, the majority supporting strong, statewide rules. Public comments were followed by testimony from industry, environmental groups including the Sierra Club, students, craft brewers (they made a special beer for the occasion), health professionals, faith leaders, and local governments.

Below, representatives of Brewery Rickoli from Wheat Ridge, Colorado, just west of Denver, hand out beer brewed for the occasion to the commissioners at the rulemaking.

Special-Rickoli-beer

The final rules were passed to apply statewide, regulate methane emissions from oil and gas operations, and reduce smog-forming volatile organic compound emissions. Additionally, the rules include:
  • The most comprehensive leak detection and repair program for oil and gas facilities in the country.
  • Regulation of a range of hydrocarbon emissions that can contribute to harmful ozone formation as well as climate change. The rules include first-in-the-nation provisions to reduce methane emissions.
    • Implementation of the rules will reduce more than 92,000 tons per year of volatile organic compound emissions. VOC emissions contribute to ground level ozone that has adverse impacts on public health and the environment, including increased asthma and other respiratory ailments.
    • Implementation of the rules also will reduce methane emissions by more than 60,000 tons per year.
  • Expanded control and inspection requirements for storage, including a first-in-the-nation standard to ensure that emissions from tanks are captured and routed to the required control devices.
  • Expanded ozone non-attainment area requirements for auto-igniters and low-bleed pneumatics to the rest of the state.
  • Requirement for no-bleed (zero-emission) pneumatics where electricity is available (in lieu of using gas to actuate pneumatic).
  • Requirements that gas stream at well production facilities either be connected to a pipeline or routed to a control device from the date of first production.
  • More stringent control requirements for glycol dehydrators.
  • A requirement to use best management practices to minimize the need for -- and emissions from -- well maintenance.
  • Expanding operator use of infrared (IR) cameras, which allow people to see emissions that otherwise would be invisible to the naked eye. Colorado obtained IR cameras for the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment and the Department of Natural Resources inspectors last year. They are an effective tool in identifying leaking equipment and reducing pollution.
  • Comprehensive recordkeeping and reporting requirements to help ensure transparent and accurate information.

The Commission also rejected two major pushes by industry parties to weaken the rules. An effort to exempt wells with low levels of VOC emissions from the leak detection rule (which would have exempted numerous wells) got a lot of attention during the hearing, but the commissioners voted it down 6-3. Industry parties also pressed hard for a "step down" provision that would let companies conduct less frequent leak inspections after two clean inspections (with the threshold to qualify for the "step down" set so high that most of the companies in Colorado already meet it). For technical details, the final rules can be reviewed here.

These rules are an exciting step forward for Colorado in regulating oil and gas emissions across the state. However, the Commission failed to adopt strong proposals to further protect communities that have drilling near homes and schools; push for the best available technology for both prevention and detection of leaks; and eliminate the exception for downstream compressor stations that account for 15 percent of leaks nationally. Coloradans will continue to fight the powerful oil and gas industry to protect their air and public health, and the Sierra Club will continue to support and engage in this battle on every level.

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