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Long rows of tubing that carry water to the Crestone Peak Resources energy company drilling sites line South Hayesmount Road in 2021. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Gov. Jared Polis on Thursday ordered Colorado’s oil and gas and air pollution regulators to set new rules by the end of 2024 to cut ozone-producing nitrogen oxide from petroleum development in half by 2030. 

The directive also orders the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, whose members Polis appoints and who oversee executive staff under the governor’s administration, to redouble efforts to carry out laws requiring more consideration of health and the environment in their regulations. The Polis announcement sets an interim goal of nitrogen oxide, or NOx, cuts of 30% during the summer ozone season of 2025, from a 2017 base level.  

“This action will significantly improve air quality and contribute to Colorado’s efforts to achieve reduced and safer levels of Ozone pollution, with immediate cuts in ozone-causing chemicals in Colorado’s air in the next 2 years and the largest regulatory reduction in NOx from oil and gas in Colorado’s history,” Polis said on Twitter.

The governor’s move comes as Democratic legislators were contemplating introducing a bill with ironclad directions to the COGCC and the health department’s Air Pollution Control Division to tighten up permitting for oil and gas drilling and industrial pollution sources. A coalition working on a draft bill said Thursday they continue to meet and negotiate with interested parties.

Legislators, Front Range elected officials and environmental nonprofits are frustrated at what they say is the regulators’ failure to carry out provisions of a 2019 law requiring drilling permitting to be based on human health impacts rather than just economic benefit to the state.

Colorado’s oil and gas sector leaders said they have already helped the state make historic cuts to emissions that contribute to the ozone problems on the Front Range, which the EPA has declared in “severe” nonattainment of its limits. 

“The NOx targets as outlined by the governor are very ambitious and will be a challenge to achieve,” said Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “This industry has proven time and again it is most successful when it leans into technology and innovation and engineers its way toward solutions. The governor’s letter raises questions for us, but we’re committed to being at the table for the rulemaking and finding common sense ways to continue reducing our emissions along the Front Range.”

The American Petroleum Institute’s Midwest and Mountain West division said new efforts on ozone should cut across all sectors of the economy, not just oil and gas producers. A significant portion of ozone-causing emissions come from transportation sources, for example. Fossil fuel power plants also contribute to ozone emissions and greenhouse gases, but are already on schedule to phase out coal-fired plants by the end of 2030

Oil and gas interests also point out that much of Colorado’s ozone problem comes from natural background ozone or out-of-state sources, including West Coast and Asian industries and Western wildfire smoke.  

The oil and gas industry is “frustrated by the process in which these targets were set and the directives rolled out, as we already have a very robust rulemaking schedule in the coming year. These efforts should not distract from the real and enduring progress of Colorado’s natural gas and oil industry,” API’s Lynn Granger said. 

Environmental and alternative energy advocates largely hailed the move. 

WildEarth Guardians, which along with partners has won multiple lawsuits demanding the Air Pollution Control Division act faster on permits and pursue violations, was optimistic.

“We applaud the Governor for recognizing that the oil and gas industry’s air pollution is far from under control, this is a very encouraging move to crack down on emissions and hold companies accountable to protecting people and communities,” said Jeremy Nichols, director of the group’s climate and energy program.

“From what we know, meeting these NOx pollution targets will necessarily require industry to reduce its footprint, eliminate infrastructure, and scale back its future expansion plans, Nichols said. “It’s heartening the governor seems to be recognizing that to protect climate and clean air, we need to start to actually rein in oil and gas drilling, fracking, and production.”

“We’re excited to see Colorado incentivize these actions to achieve both climate and air quality goals,” said Deborah Gordon, senior principal at the Rocky Mountain Institute. 

Conservation Colorado said it was still reviewing the proposal. But, “the oil and gas industry is Colorado’s largest source of ozone pollution, which has serious health impacts on our communities, so we appreciate the Governor’s focus today on the role the industry needs to play in cleaning up our air,” said the group’s executive director, Kelly Nordini.

“No single solution will bring ozone pollution in our region down below unsafe levels, but we clearly need to address emissions from the oil and gas sector in order to get there since it is the largest source of ozone-forming NOx in the region,” said CoPIRG clean air advocate Kirsten Schatz. “After years of missing the mark on clean air, these directives will help ensure our ozone reduction planning process will actually reduce harmful air pollution.”

The governor’s move also comes in the wake of state air pollution control officials having to revise their estimates upward of how much of the emissions problem is coming from the oil and gas industry. 

The division issued a memo in the fall saying it was raising those estimated contributions because it had previously miscounted the number of oil and gas wells that should be included in the emissions totals. Regulators said the changes would not worsen estimates of compliance with the EPA’s ozone limits for some of the deadlines, but the revision served to highlight demands for more reductions from the oil and gas sector. 

Some environmental advocates were disappointed the governor’s proposed policy only appreared to cover oil and gas activity in the nine Front Range counties that make up the ozone nonattainment area. (Those are Weld, Larimer, Boulder, Arapahoe, Douglas, Adams, Jefferson, Denver and Broomfield counties.) They say it’s clear oil and gas emissions from across the state drift east and contribute to metro Denver’s violations, as should be obvious from the EPA demanding Utah curtail emissions that the agency says drift into Colorado.

Advocacy groups would also like to see tougher enforcement of what is a promising set of rule changes. 

“When the state sets emissions limits for oil and gas such as what Gov. Polis is suggesting for 2025 and 2030, they never require testing to actually see if the polluter is complying with the emission limits,” said Robert Ukeiley, a Colorado attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “While people have to get their car’s tailpipe tested, when it comes to the oil and gas industry, its just a wink and a nod as the polluter writes down whatever they think their emissions are.” 

This story was updated throughout the afternoon of March 16, 2023, with additional comments and context on ozone policy.

Michael Booth is The Sun’s environment writer, and co-author of The Sun’s weekly climate and health newsletter The Temperature. He and John Ingold host the weekly Sun-Up podcast on The Temperature topics every Thursday. He is co-author with...