The questions state regulators are facing are when is one more oil and gas well one too many and how do you decide?
The Colorado Energy and Carbon Management Commission is mandated by state law to find answers, and a long line of representatives of local government, industry, environmental groups and the public offered their ideas Thursday at the start of a two-day hearing.
The so-called cumulative impacts regulation is the last in a string of new rules issued by the ECMC, formerly the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, as a result of Senate Bill 181.
The 2019 law changed the ECMC’s mission to protect public health, safety, welfare and the environment, and called for regulators to “evaluate and address potential cumulative impacts of oil and gas development.”
So far new oil and gas rules passed by ECMC and the Air Pollution Control Division have focused on reducing emissions from existing and new oil and gas operations, but critics contend that that is insufficient.
“Rules reduce impact of individual wells, but that doesn’t get us very far,” Heidi Leathwood, a climate policy analyst for the environmental group 350 Colorado, said before the hearing. “There has to be a point where the glass is full.”
“It all adds up when there are tens of thousands of wells,” Leathwood told the commission.
Major oil and gas companies and industry trade groups filed position papers and spoke in support of a cumulative impact analysis that focused solely on impacts that were direct, quantifiable and from sources owned or run by an operator.
The industry also sought to include its positive aspects such as plugging old and leaking wells and new efficient drilling with its small impact on land.
“It is critically important that cumulative impacts take into consideration plugging and abandonment benefits, retrofit and facility consolidation benefits, as well as the general benefits the oil and gas industry provides to the State of Colorado,” Christy Woodward, director of regulatory affairs for the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, said in written statement.
Since Senate Bill 181 passed an estimated 5,300 new wells have been approved, most of them under rules requiring mitigation of identified impacts, but not with any assessment of their cumulative impact.
The commission required each operator to estimate the air emissions and other impacts of their projects and then put in place measures, so-called best management practices, to mitigate the impacts.
For air emissions the plans are reviewed and signed off by the APCD.
The Front Range is in violation of federal health standards for ozone pollution and according to the APDC oil and gas is the largest human-made source of the two pollutants that combine to create ozone — accounting for 42% of the volatile organic chemical emissions in the air and 46% of the nitrogen oxides.
The ECMC also created a database for all impacts information in the drilling plans, the Cumulative Impacts Data Evaluation Repository, or CIDER, and based on that data issues an annual report on cumulative impacts.
The impact data in drilling plans, however, has been criticized by environmental groups as unproven estimates and that true emissions are only reported years later to the APCD when the wells are up and running.
“No one appears to be reviewing the cumulative impact evaluation,” Matt Sura, an attorney representing Larimer County, said in written testimony. “The operator can place any numbers in their analysis without it raising any red flags from ECMC staff.”
Still, even based on those industry estimates in CIDER, the ECMC’s 2023 cumulative impacts report found air emissions rising and the demand for water growing.
Emissions of nitrogen oxides increased 30%, to 8.3 tons per well, and volatile organic chemicals rose 40% year-over-year to 2.1 tons per well, while the demand for water rose 12% on the Front Range to 425,000 barrels per well — enough water for a year for about 120 average families of four.
In 2022, six environmental groups petitioned the ECMC to start a rulemaking for more robust cumulative impact regulations.
The commission declined to undertake that rulemaking, but in 2023 the legislature directed the ECMC to have cumulative impact rules in place by April 2024.
The question facing the commission now is how to figure out a way of evaluating and limiting impacts and how the ECMC’s actions fit in with APDC’s regulation of air emissions and awarding of air emission permits.
Larimer County suggested creating an emissions budget and, when those levels are met, that oil and gas activity be limited, at least during high ozone season.
The City and County of Broomfield has suggested using computer models to assess the impact of new oil and gas activity on air quality.
Michael Foote, an attorney for the Colorado Sierra Club, said that the commission “must establish clear criteria for the denial of a new permit application” when that new well or location does not offset its cumulative air quality impact.
The oil and gas association’s Woodward noted that the industry’s methane emission, according to one study using satellite data, declined 52% between 2013 and 2019, and that new APDC rules, such a one requiring more efficient diesel engines, will cut nitrogen oxides.
But reducing pollutants from each source as the number of wells grows still creates a challenge, Kate Merlin, an attorney for the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, told the commission.
“They want to add a quart and you’re saying you can’t add a quart, you have to add a pint,” Merlin said. “You’re still adding to a bucket that’s already overflowing.”