State air-quality board to tackle gas-and-oil pollution

DENVER – Colorado gas and oil companies could soon face some of the country’s strictest air quality rules.

The state air quality board expects to meet four or five days starting Wednesday to adopt new rules, which have divided both the industry and the environmental community.

“These rules are incredibly important,” said Dan Grossman, regional director for the Environmental Defense Fund, and a prime supporter of the plan.

The rules would require companies to detect leaks from their equipment and repair them quickly, and to stop venting methane into the atmosphere. It would be the first time any state in the country mandates the capture of methane.

Gov. John Hickenlooper announced his support for the proposal in November. He’s backed by three oil and gas companies – Noble Energy, Anadarko and Encana – as well as the Environmental Defense Fund. But with most other energy companies opposed, and other environmental groups wanting a tougher rule, there’s no guarantee the Air Quality Control Commission will give Hickenlooper what he wants.

Pollution from oil and gas equipment can pose a human health hazard, because it can form ozone. Methane venting is a source of climate-changing greenhouse gases.

Hickenlooper’s administration has estimated the rules would cut so much pollution of ozone-forming volatile organic compounds – more than 90,000 tons – that it would be like taking every car in the state off the road for a year.

The rules would apply statewide, but some energy companies and counties say they shouldn’t apply to the Western Slope, which is in less danger of violating federal ozone standards.

Stan Dempsey, president of the Colorado Petroleum Association, said it doesn’t surprise him that three energy companies are supporting Hickenlooper.

“They wrote the rules, secretly,” Dempsey said.

Oil and gas companies were at the table for a year of negotiations. But last November, EDF and three companies broke off to come up with their own plan, which Hickenlooper backs.

The Air Pollution Control Division estimates that complying with the rules would cost companies a combined $42 million a year. That’s after a $17 million benefit from capturing natural gas that is currently vented to the atmosphere.

But Dempsey said his group’s economist thinks the cost will be more like $100 million a year. It could be costlier than expected for Southwest Colorado’s coalbed methane drillers, he said.

“They didn’t account for the other operators in other basins with different price structures,” Dempsey said.

But the companies supporting the rules say they won’t back off.

“All in all, this is the right rule for Colorado,” said Korby Bracken, a spokesman for Anadarko. “As oil and gas development continues, we think this rule allows us to safely and effectively produce that resource.”

La Plata County will participate in the hearing in support of the proposed rule, said Deputy County Attorney Todd Weaver.

“We’re asking for little tweaks here and there that we think would strengthen the rule,” Weaver said.

But next door in Montezuma County, officials are not as supportive. Montezuma has joined a coalition of other Western Slope counties that don’t want to extend ozone pollution standards statewide.

Environmental groups, too, are somewhat divided. The Environmental Defense Fund is strongly in support. But others, like Earthworks, think Colorado could do more.

“They’re a pretty good first step,” said Bruce Baizel, the Durango-based director of Earthworks’ energy program.

But his group and allies will be proposing changes to increase the frequency and detail of leak inspections.