Coalition touts new air quality rules for oil and gas, but local control issue looms

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DENVER -- A broad coalition of environmentalists and oil and gas executives joined in enthusiastic support of Colorado's historic new air quality rules for the industry at the Capitol Tuesday -- and in heaping praise on Gov. John Hickenlooper for his role in negotiating the proposal that brought them together.

The rule, worked out late last year after a lengthy stakeholder process and finally approved on Sunday, will make Colorado the first state to regulate emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, as well as other pollutants.

"The implementation of these rules will reduce 90,000 tons per year of volatile organic compound emissions," said Dr. Larry Wolk, executive director of the Colorado Dept. of Public Health and Environment.

Environmental groups were euphoric over the final passage of the rules, which will also force operators to check most wells for leaks on a monthly basis.

"The fact we are here today is a victory for clean air and for one of the most pressing issues of our time, climate change," said Conservation Colorado's Pete Maysmith.

Executives from the three largest operators in the state, Noble, Anadarko and Encana, whose companies supported Hickenlooper's proposed rule last November when it was announced, also touted the rules at Tuesday's press conference in the Capitol's west foyer.

"We all want clean air," said Noble's Ted Brown. "And we believe that when you keep methane in the pipeline and out of the air, that's the right thing to do -- the right thing for the environment, for Colorado residents and for our businesses."

The regulations will cost the industry an estimated $42 million a year; that amounts to roughly $820 per well -- and the average well in Colorado produces revenues of roughly $180,000.

"The technology to meet the requirements is available and technically feasible at a manageable cost," Brown said.

While the larger operators supported the rule, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association lobbied the Air Quality Control Commission to soften the rule, suggesting it only be applied in ozone "non-attainment" areas along the Front Range and that operators with a record of fewer leaks be exempted from future checks.

After the AQCC voted down those motions aimed at changing the rule backed by the coalition of supporters, COGA is pledging its support.

"We didn't get everything we wanted in these rules, but we're ready to implement them," said COGA's Tisha Schuler, who also attended Tuesday's press conference.

If there's lingering skepticism and dissension, it's coming from the left, from smaller environmental groups representing citizens who aren't satisfied by the passage of tougher air quality rules for the industry.

"We think this rule is an effort by the governor to score political points, not actually protect Coloradans from the inherent dangers of fracking," said Sam Schabacker of the group Food and Water Watch.

"When you look at the minor dent this rule will put in emissions, it will pale in comparison will all the added pollution that will come when the governor allows thousands of more wells to be drilled across the northern Front Range."

Schabacker and others are supporting a ballot measure that would allow local Colorado communities to decide whether or not to allow fracking at all.

Five Colorado communities have banned fracking in the past 15 months; the state has responded by suing two of them, arguing that bans violate the property rights of mineral owners.

"Today's not going to satisfy the people that are against all hydrocarbons and want to see us tomorrow without burning any of these fossil fuels, but the reality is that's not going to happen," Hickenlooper said Tuesday. "Natural gas is going to be a transition fuel, I think, for the next several years as we move toward a cleaner energy component.

"Our efforts today are focused on how we do that transition as clean as possible."