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Natural gas flaring from a Williams Energy facility can be seen from Garfield County Road 215 on Friday August 14, 2020. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Flaring, the practice of burning off gas from oil and gas wells, will be limited to a handful of state-approved circumstances under the most comprehensive rules in the nation, adopted Thursday by Colorado regulators.

“We’ve done a good job for Colorado and the nation,” Jeff Robbins, the chairman of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said after the panel’s unanimous preliminary vote on the rule during a hearing on Zoom.

When oil comes out of a well it is mixed with natural gas, mainly methane. Operators who do not have a way to separate and use or ship the gas through pipelines burn, or flare, it off.

Alaska is the only other state with a flaring rule limiting the practice to emergencies on producing wells and requiring that the gas either be used or reinjected into the wells. The Colorado rule covers not only producing wells but also drilling and fracking.

“With this rule, Colorado becomes the model for other jurisdictions looking to end routine flaring as communities, investors and leading companies demand action,” Dan Grossman, director of state advocacy for the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.”

Flaring, while already used rarely in Colorado, is a widespread practice in other oil-producing states, particularly in Texas and North Dakota.

In 2019, globally there was a 3% increase in gas flared to 159 billion cubic meters, with the U.S. leading with a 23% increase in flared gas, according to the World Bank. The top four countries for flaring in 2019 were Russia, Iran, the U.S. and Iraq.

Texas accounted for half of all the gas flared or vented in the U.S. in 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Nearly 20% of all the gas produced in North Dakota was flared.

In Colorado, less than 1% of the natural gas produced in the top oil and gas counties was flared in 2019 as operators, particularly on the Front Range, have access to gathering systems and pipelines.

“There was no evidence presented that demonstrates a need for new venting and flaring rules, because it’s incredibly rare in Colorado,” Dan Haley, CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, said in a statement.

Still, the state’s biggest producers – including Occidental Petroleum, Noble Energy and PDC Energy — as well as the Small Operators Society, representing operators with just a handful of wells, supported the rule.

“There has been a lot of collaboration and conversation,” with commission staff and other stakeholders, Carrie Hackenberger, associate director of API-Colorado, an industry trade group, said. “It has been a fairly good process.”

The action also drew praise from environmental groups. “It is a great step to ban this needless and useless flaring,” said Kelly Nordini, executive director of Conservation Colorado.

It will also help the state meet its goals of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. “It is a potent climate pollutant,” Nordini said, “and we are not on track to meet our climate targets.”

MORE: Colorado releases its plan to slash greenhouse gases, leaving some environmental groups wanting more

The new rules ban routine flaring or venting, the release of the raw gas. They permit flaring when conditions at the well are disrupted, during emergencies and with written permission during maintenance, production evaluation or as part of an approved gas-capture plan.

Other times flaring would be permitted include when it’s necessary to complete a well or when an operator can show it will minimize adverse impacts to public health, safety, welfare, the environment or wildlife resources.

The COGCC rule had to be synched with Air Quality Control Commission rules to limit fugitive emissions and venting from tanks on well pads. Those rules can require the use of a combustor to burn off volatile organic chemicals rather than allowing them to escape and contribute to ozone pollution.

“It will be a matter of how the new rules are implemented,” Hackenberger said. A number of industry representatives who testified Thursday urged the commission to have its staff develop guidance for operators on how to implement the new requirements.

MORE: Oil and gas companies must monitor fracking emissions as Colorado adopts first-in-the-nation rules to reduce air pollution

Companies currently flaring can apply for an extension for no more than 12 months before either finding a way to use the gas onsite, such as for powering motors, or shipping it offsite through pipelines.

While flaring is not widespread in Colorado, there are flaring hot spots, particularly in Jackson County.

Between January and October 2019, three-quarters of all the gas produced in Jackson County was flared — almost as much natural gas flared in Weld County, the state’s biggest oil and gas producing county. The Weld flaring made up 0.24% of the county’s total gas production.

“The problem is there are no pipelines, this is a rural county,” said Barbara Vasquez, a Jackson County resident and a member of the oil and gas committee of the Western Colorado Alliance, a grassroots group.

“All the oil and the water from the wells are trucked out but there is no place to put the gas,” she said. Oklahoma City-based SandRidge Exploration and Production LLC is the operator in the county and it has flared at about 60 wells.

“You drive down Colorado 14 from Walden to Steamboat Springs and you are flanked by the wells,” Vasquez said.

“At first the flares were like tiki torches,” she added. “Then they were converted  to enclosed flares, fat chimneys, four-stories tall. But I’ve seen tall flames shooting out of a chimney making it look like an inverted rocket.”

YouTube video
EcoFlight flew over wells in North Park last month to illustrate what flaring from oil wells looks like.

The rules adopted by the commission also set a standard for emission of volatile organic compound fumes from new open storage pits within 2,000 feet of an existing building, limiting emissions to no more than 2 tons of emissions in a year.

New pits in the nine Front Range counties, which are in violation of federal ozone pollution standards, would also be limited to no more than 2 tons of emissions annually. All other new storage pits would be limited to no more than 5 tons a year of volatile organic compound emissions.

COGCC has been overhauling nearly all its rules to meet its new mission of protecting public health, safety, welfare and the environment and wildlife as set out in Senate Bill 181, oil and gas legislation passed into law in 2019.

The rules will be formally adopted after a procedural vote later this month.

Mark Jaffe

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe