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First-in-the-nation rule to slash methane emissions from Colorado oil and gas operations relied on compromise

Industry and environmental groups worked out a way to reduce emissions from new wells and old ones that contribute to Colorado’s ozone problem.

Pneumatic controllers are used to manage manage temperatures, pressure and liquid levels at oil and gas facilities and drill pads of all sizes. Colorado now requires non-emitting or no-bleed controllers on all new oil and gas projects and at existing sites being upgraded. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)
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A rule clamping down on air pollution from key devices used by the oil and gas industry – which drew support from environmental groups and industry – was unanimously adopted by Colorado air quality regulators Thursday.

The first-in-the-nation rule requires the installation of non-emitting controllers on all new oil and gas operations and the retrofitting of existing controllers – a major source of emissions in the industry.

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The environment groups and the industry worked out a compromise proposal that they jointly submitted to the Air Quality Control Commission. A wide range of local governments, including Weld County, the state’s top oil-producing county, also supported or did not oppose the proposal.

”There’s not a whole lot to talk about,” Commissioner Elise Jones said. “This is such an unusual situation with everybody agreeing.”

The state Air Pollution Control Division had initially proposed a rule to the AQCC that would have required non-emitting controllers only at new facilities, but over the past few months negotiations among industry representatives, environmental groups and local governments broadened the rule to encompass existing operations.

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The regulation will lead to “a large portion of controllers in the state being non-emitting by May 1, 2023,” according to the Environmental Defense Fund, one of the groups involved in the compromise.

Controllers manage temperatures, pressure and liquid levels at oil and gas facilities and drill pads. Most controllers run on natural gas from the well itself and every time they open and close a valve or other mechanism, they release a little bit of gas.

The methane released is a powerful greenhouse gas that contributes to Front Range ozone pollution.

While the amount of gas released is small — an average 2.8 standard cubic feet of methane an hour, according to one study — there were an estimated 100,000 controllers operating in Colorado in 2019.

Nationally, controllers account for 29% of the oil industry air emissions, according to David McCabe, a senior scientist with the Boston-based Clean Air Task Force, a public health and environmental advocacy group.

The new rule requires non-emitting controllers at all wells and production facilities constructed after May 1, 2021, or at existing facilities when new wells are drilled or wells are refracked to boost production.

The regulation also applies to new natural gas compressor stations and existing compressor stations that swap out equipment to increase their horsepower.

Operators are also obliged to systematically replace emitting controllers at existing facilities and they were given the flexibility to develop companywide plans to do it.

The size of the required emissions cuts is also on a sliding scale – between 15% and 40% – with companies already using non-emitting controllers needing to make smaller reductions.

“With the flexibility offered by the companywide plans, each operator would be able to make the retrofits that are most cost-effective,” according to EDF.

The regulation also provides limited exemptions from the requirements for temporary or portable equipment, distant or offsite wells, as well as safety and production issues. The exemption would have to be approved by the state’s APCD.

Older and smaller wells – known as stripper wells – that produce the equivalent of 15 barrels of oil or less per day would also be exempt, although their status is set to be reviewed in future negotiations.

The compromise rule was supported by groups ranging from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, an industry trade group, to Conservation Colorado. More than 60 local governments also backed the rule.

“The stakeholder discussions surrounding pneumatic controllers have proven intensive and deeply substantive, but the collaborative and good-faith work across parties has led to a clear path forward for further emissions reductions in the state,” Lynn Granger, executive director of the trade group API-Colorado, said in a statement.

The APCD also backed the compromise. “It’s unique rulemaking,” said Jeramy Murray, a division environmental specialist. “Compromise and collaboration are the Colorado way.”

Commissioner Curtis Rueter said, “as a commission it is really nice for something to come forward with no outstanding issues.”

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