New measures will require oil and gas drillers to fix leaks and control emissions in a first-of-its kind move designed to improve rural air quality.
On New Years Day, Coloradans waited in line for hours to become the first Americans to legally buy recreational marijuana. Six weeks later, on February 23, the state is claiming another significant first: limiting the amount of methane that seeps from oil and gas wells.
The methane rules are part of a larger package that aims to combat air pollution from oil and gas drilling. Now, companies will have to find and fix methane leaks and install technology to capture 95% of emissions from methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene.
Natural gas production has doubled in Colorado in the past decade, largely thanks to the same advanced drilling techniques (hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling) that have made western North Dakota boom. Oil production is up, too, and Colorado now supplies one out of every 50 barrels of oil drilled in the U.S.
Historically, much of the oil and especially gas drilling took place in the rural Western and Southwestern parts of the state, where few people were around to complain. But now the industry has moved east of the Rockies into the Niobrara Shale formation, which underlies some of the most densely-populated parts of the state. Now, oil and gas wells share space with suburban homes along the Front Range, the urbanized corridor at the foot of the Rocky Mountains where 80% of Coloradans live in cities like Boulder, Fort Collins, Denver and Colorado Springs.
This uneasy coexistence has led a number of Front Range communities to push back against drilling. Four of them voted to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the controversial process by which pressurized water and chemicals are injected underground to extract oil and gas. Now there’s a proposal to amend Colorado’s constitution to allow local governments to restrict where and when drilling happens.
Many of the most publicized, early complaints about drilling in general, and fracking in particular, involved water pollution (you’ve seen the videos of the flaming tap water), but it can be hard to link the two. Air pollution, on the other hand, is less sexy but more easily traced to oil and gas operations. In addition to methane, a potent greenhouse gas, wells leak VOCs, which are the precursors to ozone and the smog it causes.
Ozone is already an issue along the Front Range, where several communities exceed the federal limits due to vehicle traffic. But the concentration there has been increasing since 2010, coinciding with the oil and gas boom. Parts of the rural western half of the state and northeastern Utah also have high ozone, and it’s not from cars. On certain winter days, ozone concentrations here can rival or exceed that of polluted cities, and scientists say it’s likely from oil and gas wells.
Even though air pollution affects both rural and urban Coloradans, some people wanted the new rules only to apply on the Front Range.
Sen. Greg Brophy, a Republican from the Eastern part of Colorado, which looks more like Kansas or Nebraska, told the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission not to punish rural counties for the Front Range’s smog problem. “I hope the commission won’t be swayed by the flat-earthers here today who are arguing for a ‘one size fits all’ air-quality standard,” Brophy said, according to The Denver Post.
Commissioners in Garfield County, a county of 60,000 people in Western Colorado, also objected to the new rules applying in rural areas — even though the county is one of the most heavily drilled areas in the state and numerous studies have linked air pollution there to the oil and gas industry.
But other rural residents, and many environmental groups, said poor air quality simply doesn’t belong in rural areas.
“Big city air pollution in western Colorado is an alarming sign of the toll that unchecked oil and gas development is taking on our health,” Jeremy Nichols, the Climate and Energy Program Director at WildEarth Guardians, said in press release. “What’s happening in (Western Colorado and Northeastern Utah) should be a wake up call for everyone that the oil and gas industry needs to clean up its act throughout Colorado and the American West.”
On Sunday, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission came down on the side of rural air quality and decided to make the rules apply statewide. It will cost industry at least $40 million to implement, but as anyone who has lived in a polluted place can attest, clean air is priceless.