An oil well pumpjack in a farm field in Weld County against the backdrop of the Front Range on June 5, 2020. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)


In what is becoming a running skirmish between environmental groups and the Polis administration over how to curb the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, a new analysis calculates that 70% of all the gases come from oil and gas operations and calls for the shutdown of the sector by 2030.

The figures used in the analysis done by 350 Colorado are being disputed by both state air quality regulators and the oil and gas industry.

“I think we have to use the most protective numbers we can,” said Micah Parkin, executive director of 350 Colorado.

The number 350 is a reference to the parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere at which scientists say the Earth remains a livable planet. In May 2020, the level was 417 ppm and it is rising each year.

“We really need to take action quickly to avoid the worst-case scenario,” Parkin said

Industry groups, however, contend that the report’s numbers are jerry-rigged to advance the environmental group’s avowed campaign of “Keeping Fossil Fuels in the Ground.”

“As a national environmental group, 350 has made it clear it wants to ban all fossil fuels with no recognition of the safety and financial impacts that would have on Coloradans and all Americans,” Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, said in a statement.

Haley called the 350 report a ploy “to dupe regulators into banning energy production in Colorado.”

While not adopting as hard a line as 350, other environmental groups have challenged the state’s approach to curbing greenhouse gases and question whether the targets – a 26% reduction from 2005 levels by 2025, a 50% cut by 2030 and 90% by 2050 – can be met in the face of expanding oil and gas operations.

In 2019, the legislature passed and Gov. Jared Polis signed into law two bills that laid the groundwork for a comprehensive plan to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Since then environmentalists have chafed at what they see as a slow pace by the administration  in rolling out a complete plan relying instead on a string of individual rulemakings sector by sector.

Wild Earth Guardians is suing the Polis administration in Denver District Court for failing to have in place a comprehensive rulemaking to cut emissions by July 2020, as required by one of the laws, Senate Bill 96.

In December, the Environmental Defense Fund, which has criticized the state’s step-by-step approach of setting emissions for each sector, petitioned the Air Quality Control Commission to instead adopt a comprehensive plan that would set legally binding, declining emissions limits for all of Colorado’s major sources of greenhouse gases.

MORE: Colorado is behind on targets to cut greenhouse gas emissions. How far should the state push industry to get there?

The AQCC was designated by the 2019 laws as the group to develop and implement greenhouse gas reduction plans.

A draft of the state’s “Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap” generally outlining the kinds of steps that could be taken to cut emissions has been criticized by environmental groups for lacking specifics and firm timetables.

“It is wishful thinking,” Parkin said. A final roadmap is slated to be adopted this month.

In addition to EDF, two more environmental groups, Western Resource Advocates and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have raised questions about the state’s approach to reducing the heat-trapping gases and voiced doubts about whether the targets can be met.

All three have done calculations on how the state can meet its targets. To this, 350 adds its analysis focusing solely on the oil and gas sector.

All these critiques boil down to a numbers game and there is a sharp divide on how 350 is calculating its figures.

In the state’s roadmap, transportation and coal-fired power generation are the two biggest sources of greenhouse gases, accounting for about 44% of the total in 2020. Oil and gas operations were the third-largest source with about 17% of all emissions.

How did 350 get to 70% for oil and gas?

First, it adopted a more robust measure for how much heat methane traps. Methane is much more efficient than carbon dioxide in holding heat in the atmosphere, but it is also more short-lived.

Carbon dioxide can linger in the atmosphere for up to 200 years, while methane breaks down in around 10 years. So, calculating the heat-trapping prowess of a gas is a function of quantity and time.

The state uses a 100-year time frame, which is how carbon dioxide’s potential is measured, and comes up with methane being 28 times as potent as carbon dioxide. 350 uses a 20-year time frame, which boosts the heat trapping efficiency to 86 times that of CO2.

“We need to focus on the most immediate impacts, the heat-trapping that is happening now, when we make policies,” Parkin said.

But using the 100-year standard “is consistent with the federal and international protocols for developing and reporting greenhouse gas inventories,” the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment said in a statement to The Colorado Sun.

The roadmap, the statement said, includes a section comparing impacts of various time horizons, including 20 years, and shows reduced emissions in all the scenarios.

The second place where 350 boosted the impact of the oil and gas industry is in calculating the leak rate from the sector’s operations.

The state is using a leak rate for oil and gas wells of 2.9% of all produced oil and gas. The estimate comes from a model that estimates regional emissions based on the total amount of oil and gas produced and applies that on a per well basis. Using studies in other oil producing basins – in part  from Texas and Pennsylvania – and aerial surveys, 350 argues that the rate used should be 4.1%

When estimates of methane emissions are made based on summing up all the on-the-ground readings, so-called bottom-up calculation, which the state does, they are consistently lower than aerial or satellite methane measurements  – so-called bottom-down measurements. 

This leads some researchers to contend something is being missed in the ground calculations.

Those top-down measurements, however, don’t tell you the exact source of the methane, said Mike Paules, associate director for API Colorado, an industry trade group.

“This is one of the reasons we’ve been pleading with CDPHE to do more flyover measurements or satellite measurements,” Parkin said. “We need better data.”

The department said it is “working on setting up aerial, satellite and ground-based tools to better assess and confirm emissions and inventories.”

Both state regulators and industry spokesmen say using leak-rate data from oil fields in other states doesn’t reflect the six years of rulemakings to reduce leaks that have gone on in Colorado.

Inspections are being made with infrared cameras. Fugitive emissions from tanks have been tightened as have those from the controllers for valves and other equipment. 

Routine flaring – the burning off of waste gases – has been banned and a rulemaking to require zero-emission controllers is set for February.

“We’ve done more to reduce our footprint than any other basin,” Paules said.  “Either they aren’t aware of what we’ve done or they are failing to recognize it.”

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

Still, 350 rejects the roadmaps’ projected reduction in leaks to just 0.9% by 2030. “That is totally unrealistic,” Parkin said.

“We think the roadmap is based upon reasonable estimations and evaluation of the Colorado-specific data,” CDPHE said. “We also believe that data collected as a result of the 2019 rulemaking will help with future evaluations of understanding methane emissions and tracking progress towards our GHG reductions goals.”

The climate change law requires oil and gas companies to file with the state a full inventory of all the greenhouse gases they emit annually. The first of those reports will come this spring.  Paules said that should give everyone a better idea of the industry’s impact.

Finally, 350 contends that all the oil and natural gas shipped out of state should also be added to the state’s emissions regardless of where they are used. “It all ends up in the atmosphere,” Parkin said.

Not so, Paules said, as some of the natural gas and oil ends up in fertilizers, plastics and pharmaceuticals.

“That is a good point,” Parkin said, but added, “we considered the other end products created from small amounts of oil and gas exported and used combustion emissions estimates as a proxy for those processes.”

Adding all the oil and gas exported from Colorado to the state’s greenhouse gas targets would make hitting the prescribed reductions very difficult.

350’s solution is to decrease the number of operating oil and gas wells in the state and the number of new permits by 10% each year for the next 10 years, although the organization does not address the financial and legal issues of such a policy.

“We are in a crisis and need to take action and we have to phase out oil and gas in the next decade,” Parkin said.

The problem is that people aren’t going to stop driving their cars or cooking their food or heating their homes with natural gas, COGA’s Haley said. “Our local energy production is being done safely and responsible,” he said. “It’s far better to do it here, where we can make sure production is meeting the highest of standards.”

UPDATED: This story was updated Jan. 14, 2021, at 5:45 p.m. to correct the spelling of Micah Parkin’s first name and expand her quote about how the emissions of oil and gas shipped from Colorado are accounted for by 350 Colorado, and the explanation of the significance of 350 in the organizations name was updated. The method the state of Colorado uses to calculate leak rates for oil and gas wells also was corrected.

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe