The state’s oil and gas industry will face new rules cracking down on emissions as the state battles to bring the Denver area and northern Colorado into line with federal air-quality standards.
Gov. Jared Polis announced Thursday that the state will develop “the most ambitious rule in Colorado’s history” to cut nitrogen oxide emissions, which form ground-level ozone pollution.
State regulators believe they will be the first of their kind in the nation.
The state has passed a series of new oil and gas rules, including ones requiring cuts in methane emissions, since a 2019 law mandated a change in how the industry is regulated. However, Polis said the industry still has a significant impact on the state’s air quality and greenhouse-gas emissions.
This year, oil and gas production is projected to be the largest contributor of ozone-causing emissions in the part of the Front Range classified as “severe” violators of federal air quality standards, according to a state plan to comply with federal regulations. Polis said estimates show that oil and gas production is responsible for about 40% of the total ozone pollution in the Denver area.
“These would be substantial reductions in nitrogen oxides, which means lower ozone levels across the Denver metro area rapidly,” Polis said during a call with The Denver Post.
But the reductions are achievable with today’s technology, Polis said. One way to cut the emissions is to use electric rather than diesel engines at well sites, he added.
Other sources of nitrogen oxides are vehicles, other industrial operations and wildfires. Nitrogen oxides form ground-level ozone when exposed to sunlight. Ozone is typically higher in the summer, and health risks include trouble breathing and increased asthma attacks.
State health officials issue ozone alerts, warning of unhealthy conditions and urging people to drive less and refuel or mow after 5 p.m. A reading in summer 2021 was 48% higher than the federal limit.
Nitrogen oxide emissions haven’t been subject to “steady, measurable emissions reductions,” Polis said. The governor wants the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment to write new rules by the end of 2024.
The goal is for companies operating in the area out of compliance with air-quality standards to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by at least 30% in 2025 and at least 50% in 2030, based on 2017 levels.
Jeff Robbins, chairman of the oil and gas commission, said the COGCC works with the health department to look at what can be done to address ozone if oil and gas production occurs during the summer. The health department has a series of management practices it asks companies to consider.
“Right now a lot of that is volitional, and this direction will tell the commission that we will go ahead and codify the best practices so we can ensure that the oil and gas development is carrying its water with regard to ozone,” Robbins said.
Robbins noted Polis also has asked the state agencies to develop incentives to encourage companies to go above and beyond the goals.
Polis said his order builds on the state’s “nation-leading efforts” to address climate change by reducing heat-trapping gasses and increasing the use of renewable energy. On the transportation side, his administration’s goal is to have nearly 1 million electric vehicles on Colorado’s roads by 2030.
Regulations approved over the past couple of years to target emissions from the oil and gas industry include earlier and more frequent monitoring and equipment updates to prevent leaks from tanks and valves. Industry representatives plan to be at the table as the new emissions rules are considered, but they expressed frustration that the nitrogen oxide rulemaking will add to other rounds set for this year.
Colorado’s oil and gas rules are the most rigorous in the country, said Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “It’s time for the state, including the legislature, to let the rules work and let our operators get to work producing the vital resources our country and the world need,” he said in an email.
Lynn Granger, director of American Petroleum Institute’s Midwest and Mountain West regions, said the Front Range’s persistent ozone issue is affected by the area’s topography and out-of-state pollution.
“We believe the state’s efforts to combat this issue are genuine, but they must be economywide in scale to ultimately succeed,” Granger said in a statement.
Despite the overhaul of state regulations, communities near oil and gas fields and activists continue to air concerns about the industry’s impact. Advocates of tougher regulations have said Colorado’s air can’t be cleaned up if the state keeps approving new drilling permits.
But Polis said oil and gas will be produced as long as the demand exists. “Our focus is on preparing for a renewable energy future.”
Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, said the industry has reduced nitrogen oxide emissions over the years.
“In general, engines that are running out there are cleaner than they’ve ever been. They’re meeting stronger emission rates,” Nichols said. “But we’re at a point where it’s not enough to have just a cleaner engine. There needs to be less engines and less burning going on.”
Nichols said that although the goals announced by Polis are good, he doesn’t see how they can be met without reducing emission sources, which means less oil and gas production.
One big challenge is that Weld County is one of nine counties in the so-called “nonattainment area,” where ozone levels are high. It is the center of Colorado’s oil and gas drilling, with 17,608 of the state’s 49,000 active wells.
Adams and Arapahoe counties are also in the high-ozone area. Each has hundreds of active wells.
The EPA downgraded the air quality along the northern Front Range from “serious” to “severe” in September when Colorado failed to meet a 2008 goal requiring ozone emissions to be under 75 parts per billion annually. The state also failed to reach a 2015 goal of lowering ozone emissions to 70 parts per billion annually.
In December, the state’s Air Pollution Control Division said it was withdrawing portions of a plan to improve the Front Range’s ozone problems because there were significant errors in calculating oil and gas emissions. Regulators said new calculations predict the estimates of emissions of nitrogen oxide for drilling and fracking operations are nearly double what originally was reported.