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Pump jacks and flare chimneys in operation on D90’s oil and gas sites along Jackson County Road 28 near Walden. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Plans for nearly 1,500 new Colorado oil and gas wells were approved in 2022 and while all of them had to assess the cumulative impacts the drilling would create, environmental and community groups say those evaluations are inadequate.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission on Friday will hold a hearing on a petition by six environmental groups calling for regulators to adopt tougher rules on measuring and judging the impacts of the growing number of oil and gas wells in the state.

The groups — WildEarth Guardians, the Sierra Club, 350 Colorado, Womxn from the Mountain, Physicians for Social Responsibility Colorado, and the Larimer Alliance for Health, Safety and the Environment — want the COGCC to start a new rulemaking process.

The hearing comes a day after the commission approved the largest drilling plan submitted this year, PDC Energy’s Guanella plan for up to 466 wells on 33,000 acres in Weld County.

Under a 2019 law, Senate Bill 181, the COGCC’s mission was changed to emphasize protecting public health, safety, welfare and the environment.

“When the commission did mission-change rulemaking, it acknowledged that those rules weren’t going to be enough to address cumulative impacts,” said Kate Merlin, an attorney with WildEarth Guardians.

The industry and oil and gas dependent counties, however, see the petition, with its emphasis on broad issues such as regional ozone pollution and climate change, as a way to throttle the sector.

“The petition, if granted, and the proposed rules, if adopted, would result in a ban on oil and gas development and production in Garfield County and most other areas of Colorado,” Parachute Mayor Tom Rugaard, said in a letter to the commission.

Still, in heavily impacted areas, particularly suburban communities, concern over the pileup of drilling weighs heavy. 

Data collected is so general that it’s not useful

The Town of Erie, which straddles the Boulder and Weld county line, for example, is home to 135 active wells and has another 314 wells operating or planned within 2,000 feet of the community, according to David Frank, the town’s energy and environment program specialist.

“The impacts to public health and environment from each individual well, if properly constructed and maintained, may be minimal; however, the cumulative effects of so many wells in such proximity to Erie residents cannot be discounted or ignored,” Frank said in a filing.

Both the oil and gas commission and operators have attempted to address the question of cumulative impacts. Each application for drilling must assess those impacts and the commission has created the Cumulative Impacts Data Evaluation Repository, CIDER,  to catalog the data.

The commission also puts out an annual report on cumulative impacts. The first report was issued in January and the next one will be released in February.

In briefing the commission Thursday on the upcoming report, Julie Murphy, the COGCC director, said the ability to assess impacts has to be built up.

“To be able to understand cumulative impacts, you need to start with a baseline and to date COGCC has not collected a baseline set of information,” Murphy said. The current data collection is geared “to start to collect the information that can help inform us of trends or trajectories.”

The report, Murphy said, will also give the commission guidance in exploring what other information would be helpful.

“You’ve got local governments, the COGCC, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and industry spending millions of dollars to monitor cumulative impacts,” said Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group. 

The problem is that the material, so far, is so general that it is difficult to judge the real impacts or blunt them, said Heidi Leathwood, a climate analyst with the environmental group 350 Colorado.

Is capping 576 old wells enough to offset new drilling?

The PDC Energy plan approved Wednesday estimates the project would create as much as 60 tons a year of volatile organic chemical emissions and 361 tons a year of nitrogen oxides, or NOx, during drilling and fracking, with emissions dropping but persistent once the wells are producing.

NOx and volatile organics are the two ingredients that, along with heat and sunlight, create ozone, a corrosive air pollutant. The Environmental Protection Agency has designated the Northern Front Range a severe ozone nonattainment area, with levels exceeding health standards.

State air regulators are working on a plan to curb ozone-linked pollution and get the region back into compliance with the federal Clean Air Act, but were forced to revise the plan after they found that they were undercounting NOx emissions from oil and gas operations.

“What we have is a region where we don’t have ozone attainment, don’t even have a plan for ozone attainment and we are still approving oil and gas without looking at the cumulative effects,” WildEarth Guardians’ Merlin said.

WildEarth Guardians and 350 Colorado did a tally of the estimated truck traffic in 36 oil and gas development plans approved this year and found it came to 9.5 million miles of travel to and from sites.

Oil and gas activities account for 29% of the region’s NOx and 41% of its volatile organic chemical emissions, according to the Regional Air Quality Council.

Operators are identifying cumulative effects in their drilling plans and are taking steps to mitigate them, often by adding best management practices, or BMPs, to the plans.

“In an effort to avoid, minimize, and mitigate adverse cumulative impacts to public health, safety, welfare, the environment, and wildlife resources, PDC included several dozen BMPs,” such as using non-polluting electric drills, the company said in its application.

“These proposed BMPs cover cumulative impacts to air resources (including public health and safety), public welfare, water resources, terrestrial and aquatic wildlife and ecosystem resources, and soil resources,” the plan said.

In addition, part of the Guanella plan is to plug and abandon up to 576 existing wells that are leaking an estimated 144 tons of VOCs a year.

The question is whether those steps adequately reduce the impacts.

An abandoned pump jack in Adams County on Aug. 12, 2022. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Can Colorado meet greenhouse gas reduction goals while still drilling?

A second concern voiced by the environmental groups is the impact of oil and gas operations on curbing greenhouse gas emissions and meeting the state’s goal of cutting overall emissions by 50% over 2005 levels by 2030.

The state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Roadmap sets a goal of cutting oil and gas emissions by 50%, over 2005 levels, by 2030, equal to 12 million tons of methane. The sector is the third largest source of greenhouse gases after transportation and electricity generation.

At the end of 2021, air regulators adopted a sweeping set of regulations to cut oil and gas emissions and the COGCC has adopted a rule strictly limiting  the burning of gas at well sites.

“Industry acknowledges the concern over climate change,” Haley said, adding the combination of the new rules and state-of-the-art technology is enabling Colorado operators to produce “the world’s cleanest molecules” of oil and gas.

Still, the environmental groups contend without better data and a more rigorous analysis it is difficult to know the full impacts. They also question cumulative impact estimates in drilling plans.

“Some of them don’t pass the smell test and there is no penalty if the estimates are wrong,” Merlin said.

As an example, she cited a plan by one operator which included 23 separators, devices that separate oil, water and gas coming out of a well, which would have zero emissions. 

The COGCC’s Murphy said that as actual emissions reporting comes in from the state Air Pollution Control Division it will serve as a check on the estimates in drilling plans and help the commission understand how to evaluate the emission projections in the plans.

As part of its petition, the environmental groups proposed some potential rule changes such as not issuing any permits for drilling if the state isn’t on track to meet its greenhouse emission reduction goals or revoking a permit if its cumulative impacts exceed its initial projections.

Another proposal would require an equity analysis for low-income and minority areas that are designated “disproportionately impacted communities.” About five such communities fall within approved drilling plans, according to an analysis by 350 Colorado’s Leathwood.

“They are going to approve more pollution in areas with disproportionately impacted communities,” Leathwood said. “The COGCC rules don’t allow them to deny permits in already heavily polluted areas. It shows they are completely inadequate.”

Seven oil and gas counties — Weld, Garfield, Rio Blanco, Mesa, Delta, Moffat and Jackson — filed objections to the petition, saying there is a cumulative impact process in place, and the environmentalists’ proposed rules are a regulatory overreach, which would be crippling for the industry.

While Senate Bill 181 did make the protection of public health, safety and welfare, as well as the environment and wildlife, a priority, the law said that should be done in the context of protecting public and private rights in the efficient development of oil and gas, according to a Garfield County filing.

“The oil and gas conservation act has multiple goals and the petitioners have asked the commission to put onblinders to only look at a narrow set of the goals,” said Kirby Wynn,  Garfield County’s oil and gas liaison.

Colorado’s two largest oil and gas producers — Chevron Inc. and Noble Energy — while opposing the petition proposed setting up a working group of stakeholders to explore whether additional rules are needed.

“It is a process that is happening,” the oil and gas association’s Haley said. “But you’ve got to give it time.”

The petitioning environmental groups say they are wary that the commission and the industry is just “trying to kick the can down the road.”

“If the commission doesn’t act on cumulative impacts it is likely it will be taken out of their hands,” Merlin said. “It will end up in the legislature, another regulatory agency, the EPA or on a ballot measure.”

Mark Jaffe

Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @bymarkjaffe