Colorado to require oil, gas industry to cut nitrogen oxide emissions

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 it’s estimated that oil and gas production is responsible for roughly 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.

The 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 when drilling near communities or during the summer.

“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 has also 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 more inspections of well sites, equipment updates to prevent leaks from tanks and monitoring of emissions from activities before production starts. Rules now require monitoring during fracking, which injects liquids at high pressure to make it easier for the oil and gas to flow.

Despite the overhaul of oil gas rules, communities near oil and gas fields and activists continue to air concerns about the industry’s impact. Weld County is one of nine counties deemed in violation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s limits on ozone pollution.

Weld County is also the center of Colorado’s oil and gas drilling. The county has 17,608 of the state’s nearly 49,000 active wells. Adams and Arapahoe counties, also in the so-called ozone “nonattainment area,” have hundreds of active wells.

Advocates for tougher regulation of the industry want the oil and gas commission to more comprehensively evaluate the cumulative impacts of drilling. Environmental and community groups petitioned the commission in 2022, asking it to address the cumulative impacts of drilling air quality.

The commission rejected the petition, but is taking input from the groups as it prepares a report.

Advocates have also said that Colorado’s air can’t be cleaned up if the state keeps approving new drilling permits.

“As long as there’s demand for oil and gas, they will be produced,” Polis said. “Our focus is on preparing for a renewable energy future.”

The EPA downgraded the air quality along the northern Front Range from “serious” to “severe” in September 2022 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.

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