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An oil and gas pump jack is pictured west of Ault on Wednesday, May 19, 2021. (Andy Colwell, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Colorado air quality regulators will move forward with a controversial, first-in-the-nation rule to curb greenhouse gas releases from oil and gas operators based on the intensity of emissions relative to their production.

In the face of opposition from some local officials and environmental groups, the Air Quality Control Commission voted on Friday to set a December hearing on the proposed “greenhouse gas intensity target” rule, which would go into effect in 2023.

Boulder County Commissioner Matt Jones called the approach “unproven, inaccurate and costly” in comments to the commission, and he criticized the two-year timetable for implementing the rule. 

“We don’t have time to wait,” Jones said. “Right now, put in place the strongest proven protections you can.”

The proposed rule, developed by the Air Pollution Control Division, would set an emission limit per 1,000 barrels of oil equivalent (defined as oil plus natural gas) produced. There would be a target for large operators and a less restrictive one for small operators.

“A methane intensity rule is simply not going to cut it,” said Andrew Forkes-Gudmunson, deputy director of the League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, an umbrella organization for grass-roots community groups, told the commission.

Big cuts in the oil and gas sector are key to meeting the statutory goal of trimming Colorado’s greenhouse gas emissions 26% over 2005 levels in 2025; 50% by 2030; and 90% by 2050 under the administration’s Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Roadmap.

Forkes-Gudmunson, like several others who offered comments to the commission, called for the use of direct regulations that would get emission reductions in the short term.

While critics took aim at the intensity rule, Robyn Wille, the Air Pollution Control Division’s chief strategy officer, told the commission that it is only one element in a large package of rules, including direct regulations, that would be part of the rulemaking.

Among the other proposed rules are ones to tighten emissions during well maintenance, monthly leak detection and repair requirements, emission controls on pipeline maintenance activities, and new controls on site equipment.

The intensity target, Wille said, “is on top of everything else that has been done … this is to catch everything else that we haven’t caught.”

“I understand the hesitancy, but we can’t be doing the same thing over and over,” Wille said. “We have to be innovative.”

Wille said that to the division’s knowledge no other regulator has tried to implement an oil and gas intensity rule.

Commissioner Martha Rudolph said that the air division must make a greater effort to put the intensity rules into the context of the overall regulatory proposal.

“There remains confusion and concern out there,” Rudolph said. “I am concerned that the information that is spreading out there may become a problem in the rulemaking.”

Oil and gas operators have to submit “clean energy plans” outlining how they will meet the targets in 2023.

The air division is also working on developing, by 2023 methods, to accurately assess the annual emission inventories oil and gas companies are required to file so that the intensity targets can be verified, Wille said.

Under the proposed rule, a company failing to hit its targets would be required to make up those reductions the following year.

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe