Environmentalists unhappy with Hickenlooper’s latest air quality rule
DENVER — Colorado has already delayed an ongoing effort to adopt new rules aimed at curbing toxic emissions from the state’s booming oil and gas industry in an effort to reach a solution that is acceptable for both the industry and for environmentalists and those deeply concerned with thickening smog and its impact on public health along the Front Range.
But as that process nears a climactic stage, environmentalists have gotten their first glimpse at where Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration wants the Air Quality Control Commission to go — and they don’t like what they see.
A draft rule from the state, yet to be released publicly, surfaced last week.
And environmental advocates, trying to maintain a positive face publicly with negotiations still taking place, are fuming privately that the new rule, in their view, doesn’t do enough to capture methane emissions and to require oil and gas companies to detect leaks.
“The draft rule is a huge disappointment,” said Matt Sura, an attorney representing the group Weld Air and Water, who did speak on the record about the administration’s proposal.
“I think that Gov. Hickenlooper believes that he has to appear to have done something. His administration has put forth a proposal that doesn’t do much of anything.”
Hickenlooper has often spoken publicly about having a “zero tolerance” for emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that has 34 times the impact of carbon dioxide on climate change.
But his administration’s draft rule addresses “volatile organic compounds” including methane, but not methane specifically.
One environmental lobbyists calls methane capturing “the key to whether the natural gas equation works for climate”, but laments that Hickenlooper’s proposed rule is “not even close” to achieving his stated zero tolerance goals.
“Compressor engines can be emitting as much methane stream as they want without being tracked by this rule,” Sura said.
The proposed rule calls for using auto-igniters to burn off toxic emissions; and linking new wells to pipelines within six months to minimize leakage of methane.
But environmentalists want the rules to go much further when it comes to leak detection and repair, or “L-DAR”, as it’s known in industry-speak, which they believe must be done on a monthly basis to make a meaningful impact on air quality.
Under the proposed rule, 90 percent of the state’s well sites would be inspected just twice a year.
At the last meeting of the Air Quality Control Commission earlier this month, Will Allison, director of the state’s Air Pollution Control Division, which includes the AQCC, told FOX31 Denver that it’s a difficult balance, given the industry’s concerns about the financial cost of being forced to do more routine monitoring, especially with several companies owning hundreds of wells.
“We’re trying to find that sweet spot that allows us to reduce emissions to the degree we want while still being cost-effective strategy,” Allison said.
Colorado Oil and Gas Association lobbyists are pushing the state to go further and exempt facilities that produce less than 20 tons a year of pollution from inspections and to allow facilities that emit 20 to 30 tons of air pollution to be inspected once a year.
Facilities that emit 30 to 50 tons would be inspected twice a year. Those emitting more than 50 tons would be inspected quarterly.
Some large oil and gas companies operating in Colorado like Anadarko are already using forward-looking infrared cameras, which enable companies to detect leaks, the very technology environmental groups believe should be standard across the industry.
Sura laughs off the idea that the industry — Noble Energy, for instance, expects to invest $10 billion in Colorado over the next five years to triple its production — can’t afford more frequent inspections.
“Sometimes it’s just as easy as replacing a seal on a hatch, on a condensate tank,” Sura said. “These fixes are very cheap for them in most cases and save them a tremendous amount of money because they’re keeping these gases and this oil in the pipeline.”
The draft rule would also force leaks, when detected, to be repaired within 15 to 30 days; environmentalists believe that’s too lenient — and the industry thinks it’s too strict.
The rule also proposes to relax thresholds for reporting air pollution and requiring permits. Currently, well sites emitting more than five tons of VOCs must apply for permits; the state is now proposing to lift the threshold so that only sites emitting 25 tons of VOCs are forced to seek permits.
“It’s actually a step backwards in some respects,” Sura said. “That’s unacceptable; we need to have that information so we can track those pollution sources.”
Taken as a whole, the draft rule rankles environmentalists, who have always looked askance at Hickenlooper, a former geologist who has strong backing from the oil and gas industry.
If the rule doesn’t change much as it goes forward, Hickenlooper risks upsetting a piece of the Democratic base heading into a reelection campaign in 2014 — a base he may need given the drop in his approval ratings with unaffiliated voters unnerved by an especially progressive legislative session in 2013.
Conservation Colorado’s Pete Maysmith was somewhat diplomatic in a statement to FOX31 Denver.
“The governor has called for strong protections to clean up our air and cut methane,” Maysmith said. “The rule needs to be significantly strengthened and we are hopeful that will happen.”
But will it?
Most involved in the process believe the AQCC, with members appointed by Hickenlooper himself, will introduce a new rule next month that looks pretty similar to the draft rule released last week.
“What the governor has said doesn’t match at all what the administration is putting forth as a new rule,” Sura said. “At this point, his calls for ‘zero tolerance’ for methane emissions are empty rhetoric.”