Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Proposed new air quality regulations in Colorado draw acclaim

Colorado has proposed revisions to the state's air quality regulations that aim to crack down on pollution by oil and gas operations, including first-in-the-nation provisions that would limit methane emissions from the industry's infrastructure.

Gov. John Hickenlooper announced the changes Monday.

"The rules will help Colorado prepare for anticipated growth in energy development, while protecting public health and the environment," Hickenlooper said. "They represent a significant step forward in addressing a wider range of emissions that before now have not been directly regulated."

Methane is among the most potent of greenhouse gases. The second-most prevalent warming air pollutant in the U.S., after carbon dioxide, it has 20 times the impact of CO2 over a century.

It constitutes as much as 90 percent of natural gas and is emitted during all stages of the process to extract the booming energy source from subterranean chambers and caverns.

A January 2013 study published in the journal Nature concluded that as much as nine percent of the methane extracted from the ground during hydraulic fracturing operations in Colorado and Utah escapes to the atmosphere. 

Unlike federal air quality rules, the Colorado proposal would impose specific limits on discharges of the gas to the atmosphere.

The proposal would also require oil and gas producers, who in Colorado are primarily engaged in hydraulic fracturing, to detect leaks from storage tanks, pipelines, and other facilities, repair any such leaks on a specified timeline, and to conduct regular inspections of potential air pollutant sources.

The rules would cover volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions in addition to being the first in the nation to specifically limit methane discharges to the air.

A prominent spokesperson for the environmental community lauded the Colorado proposal, as did representatives of the energy industry in the state.

"If this package is adopted, Coloradans will breathe easier, knowing they have the best rules in the country for controlling air pollution from oil and gas activities,” Fred Krupp, the president of Environmental Defense Fund, said.

A joint statement by energy companies Anadarko, Encana, and Noble promised support for the regulations.

"This collaboration is a good model for developing effective regulations and activities to monitor, control and reduce methane leaks and VOCs," the statement said. "The process and increased accountability established by the proposal will provide transparency and build public trust."

The new rules will not be finalized until after the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission conducts hearings.

The Hickenlooper administration's proposal for increased regulation of the air pollution caused by the state's burgeoning oil and gas industry follows indications that the state's residents are becoming restive over the presence of extraction activities.

Four communities along the northern Front Range voted earlier this month to ban, either permanently or for several years, fracking operations within their municipal boundaries.