New air quality rules for oil and gas industry will regulate methane

DENVER — Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper on Monday is set to announce a new set of rules regulating emissions from the state’s booming oil and gas industry in order to improve deteriorating air quality across the Front Range.

According to sources, the announcement is expected to include guidelines for the regulation of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gas-causing chemicals, a groundbreaking move that could set a new national precedent.

Hickenlooper, who faces reelection next year, is desperate for an opportunity to remind voters that he’s a consensus-driven, compromise-fostering moderate, not the liberal patriarch of a Democratic party that controls the Capitol and pushed a notably ambitious legislative agenda earlier this year.

The governor is holding a press conference at the Capitol at 1 p.m. to highlight what a press release termed “first-of-its-kind” rules for the industry.

The Air Quality Control Commission extended its rule-making process, which was supposed to be completed by the end of the year, in hopes that more time would lead to a compromise that has been elusive to this point.

The framework to be rolled out Monday is significantly stronger than the administration’s draft rule, a trial balloon of sorts floated a month ago that didn’t explicitly regulate methane and required operators to check most well sites for chemical leaks just once or twice a year.

Environmentalists were outraged, recalling Hickenlooper’s oft-stated goal of a “zero tolerance for methane” policy.

“At this point, his call for zero tolerance for methane emissions is hollow rhetoric,” said Matt Sura, an attorney for the group, Weld Air and Water.

The pressure on Hickenlooper to placate their concerns only grew after four Colorado communities voted earlier this month to put a five-year moratorium on fracking, a public statement from citizens willing to confront the governor, no matter the likelihood of a lengthy legal fight.

For several months, the AQCC has discussed a number of regulations and heard from dozens of concerned stakeholders, including Front Range residents, representatives of the industry and medical providers who study the impacts of poor air quality on public health.

“Oil and gas operations create these volatile organic compounds which leads to ozone formation,” Dr. Anthony Gerber, a pulmonologist at National Jewish Medical Center, told the commission in October.

“Basically every time you see a correlation between the level of ozone that’s ambient in the atmosphere and an increased number of events and those can range from asthma attack to stroke.”

The commission, with members appointed by the governor, has been trying to strike a balance to make a meaningful impact on air quality without over-burdening an industry that generates billions of dollars in revenue and millions in annual severance taxes for the state.

“The issues can be contentious and there are still some disagreements,” Allison said back in October. “Where is that sweet spot if you will that allows us to reduce emissions to the degree we want while still being cost-effective strategy?”

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association, the industry’s trade group, has argued against more frequent leak detection and repair requirements, noting that monthly checks would force the industry into a pattern of near-constant checks — there are more than 52,000 well sites across the state — and paperwork, with diminishing returns.

“We have over 5,000 well sites in this basin,” Anadarko’s Korby Bracken told FOX31 Denver during a tour of the company’s command center in Evans, where a team of analysts monitor pipeline activity electronically with a high-tech system of live cameras and monitors that show how product is moving and being stored in real time.

“It takes a lot of manpower to actually do the process of going through the facilities and evaluating a lot of the fittings.”