Colorado begins to tackle the impacts of the fracking boomIn Colorado, new rules aim to mitigate the health, climate impacts of the state's fracking boom. Photo credit: Tony Webster via Flickr

By Kaitlin Sullivan

Colorado officials began the process of rolling out controls on the oil and gas industry to comply with a new state law mandating new attention to public health, the environment and climate change.

The Department of Public Health and Environment held a public meeting on Monday to discuss the new controls, which are aimed at reducing pollution emitted by the oil and gas industry. Rulemaking hearings will take place in front of the department’s Air Quality Control Commission in December and if approved, would take effect early next year. 

The controls are consistent with Senate Bill 181, which was signed into law in April and requires the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) to consider public health and the environment when granting permits and setting regulations for oil and gas operations in the state. The law also granted local governments the authority to regulate the siting of oil and gas development. 

Climate activists support the new rules, although some charge they don’t go far enough to mitigate the effects of Colorado’s drilling boom.

“A lot depends on the actual substance of the rules, right now we only know the general categories they intend to start rulemaking on,” said Rebecca Fischer, an attorney at WildEarth Guardians, which filed a complaint in March alleging the Denver Metro-North Front Range Area did not comply with 2008 National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone. 

Colorado, where oil and gas production has soared since the popularization of fracking in the early 2000s, has become a battleground between the fossil fuel industry and an outdoors-loving population. Efforts to rein in the impact of all the drilling have been shot down by courts—the Colorado Supreme Court invalidated municipal fracking bans in 2016—and a statewide referendum trying to keep the drilling away from schools and neighborhoods was defeated with well-funded opposition from the oil and gas industry in 2018.

But Colorado voters also swept in a Democratic majority in the state senate in 2018 along with new Gov. Jared Polis, who ran on a platform of reining in drilling and protecting the climate. The state also has three communities suing oil companies to recoup the costs of climate change: the city and county of Boulder as well as San Miguel have filed suit against Exxon and Suncor to hold them accountable for climate costs.

Traditionally, the COGCC’s role has been to promote oil and gas development in the state. A youth-led lawsuit tried to force the commission to consider public health and climate, but the state’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the oil and gas industry in dismissing the suit earlier this year. The new Democratic majority passed the new law in April requiring COGCC to protect people and the environment. 

Among the controls proposed Monday is the elimination of a nearly 30-year-old loophole that allows oil and gas companies to operate for 90 days before being required to secure permits that cap allowable air pollution. The exemption has been widely criticized as a license to pollute, and singled out as a reason the state’s ozone levels exceed federal standards. The region could face federal penalties if Environmental Protection Agency standards are not met.

“One of the things we’re focused on is bringing ozone values down to get us in compliance with the federal standards,” said Garry Kaufman, director of the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division, who presented the proposed new controls at Monday’s hearing. “We also want to make sure that people who are impacted by emissions oil and gas are protected.”

Another proposed rule would require all oil and gas operations to undergo regular inspections, which include using infrared technology to detect methane leaks. Kaufman said that while some facilities undergo monthly inspections, some of the state’s smallest emitting facilities are only subject to a one-time inspection. Methane, which leaks and is also vented into the atmosphere from oil and gas facilities at various points in the production process, is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.

Other controls would require companies to submit annual emissions reports and curb both air-polluting emissions from storage tanks as well as the amount of gas that is vented into the atmosphere through valves. Some advocates present at the meeting said the new rules, which are expected to be released in a draft sometime in August, do not go far enough to protect public health and the environment. 

Industry attorneys, including those from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, were also present at Monday’s meeting. 

The “proposals are sweeping and extreme, and capitulate to politics rather than drawing from their own science,” Dan Haley, president and chief executive of the association, said in a statement. 

Data from the National Center for Atmospheric Research published by the state found that while the amount of volatile organic compounds (VOC) emitted by the oil and gas industry did decrease between 2011 and 2017, the industry is still the largest source of VOCs along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, accounting for roughly half of regional emissions. VOC exposure has been linked to many health impacts including respiratory illness, decreased organ function and cancer.  The data also show that emissions from oil and gas operations are the largest local contributor to ozone pollution between Boulder and Fort Collins, where there is a high concentration of oil and gas activity.

“The practical effect of these proposals could essentially result in a statewide permitting moratorium—just the thing officials have publicly disavowed,” said Haley.

Though some community members did advocate for a drastic reduction or even the elimination of oil and gas permits, Kaufman said a moratorium on permitting is not being considered and that the rule changes would give agencies further notice of oil and gas permits so these tests can begin sooner.

“This is a continuation of Colorado’s commitment to reducing emissions from oil and gas but also represents a new phase in that process,” Kaufman said. “This rulemaking is the first in what will be a series of rule makings to enforce those directives.” 

This first batch of controls focuses on a particular set of issues linked to the oil and gas industry, including leak detection and emissions. Kaufman expects state agencies will evaluate additional issues and create legislation as necessary. 

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