Will hearings lead to clean air... or hot air?

The Colorado Statesman

Hearings kicked off this week for air quality rulemaking that would make Colorado the first state to regulate detection and reduction of methane emissions by the oil and gas industry.

The plan — touted by Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat — aims to capture 95 percent of emissions by requiring expedited inspections for leak detection and repair, as well as controls on storage tanks and other emissions sources. The target is on hydrocarbons, including both volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and methane.

The proposal came about following stakeholder meetings with the Environmental Defense Fund and three producers: Noble Energy, Encana and Anadarko.

Hearings are scheduled to run through Saturday. A decision from the commission could come as soon as this weekend, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

Wednesday was the first time the public had a chance to comment directly on the proposals before the Air Quality Control Commission. At least 120 residents showed up at the hearing in Aurora to testify, largely representing residents who are concerned with oil and gas operations and who would like to see tough rules.

The issue has become increasingly more polarizing in recent years as communities have lashed out against the oil and gas industry. Five local communities in Colorado have banned or imposed moratoriums on the controversial drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Longmont in 2012 was the first community to prohibit fracking. The state then turned around and sued the local government, arguing that Longmont does not have the authority to overstep the state on oil and gas regulation.

As a result, environmentalists and community activists attacked Hickenlooper, pointing out that the governor is a former geologist and a friend to the industry. Hickenlooper supports fracking as a safe way to increase the nation’s domestic energy supply.

But in announcing the proposal to cut back on methane emissions, Hickenlooper said he is working to find a compromise, and that the air quality rulemaking is part of that process.

“What we’ve done is work with the environmental community and oil and gas community to try and find compromises and use common sense to say, ‘How can we make sure we get to the cleanest possible outcomes in terms of air quality?’ Yet at the same time recognize that we have businesses here that employ our citizens and are helping solve the energy challenges that we face as a country,” Hickenlooper said when he unveiled the plan back in November.

Citizens, however, made little mention of compromise at the first of the hearings on Wednesday. One after the other, citizens — especially in energy development-heavy areas of the state like the Western Slope — spoke of health concerns and shared their stories.

“I don’t need to look out the window to see what the air quality is for the day — my coughing tells the tale,” explained Kristin Winn, a Grand Junction resident who testified on the rulemaking. “On days when the air is cleaner, I can breathe easily… You have the power to make a difference…”

Colorado moms carried “gas patch kids” — Cabbage Patch dolls standing in for real children who live close to oil and gas operations.

“Moms want strong, common sense air quality standards that protect the air our children breathe every day because not implementing them will put the health of our kids at risk,” explained Kristin Stephens, a Fort Collins mother who is concerned about increased drilling activities along the Front Range. “We’re depending on AQCC commissioners to ensure the air our kids play in every day is clean and healthy.”

Brewers for Colorado unveiled a new brew in support of air quality rules that would regulate methane emissions from oil and gas development. The craft beer is called Crystal Clear Colorado Ale and is brewed by Brewery Rickoli, out of Wheat Ridge.

Colorado brewers have also been active in the conversation calling for stringent rules; directly targeting Hickenlooper. The governor is also a former brewer who has close ties to the craft beer industry.

Brewers for Colorado has launched a new brew in light of the rulemaking, Crystal Clear Colorado Ale. The label includes an illustration of a man — who looks a lot like Hickenlooper — holding a pint to the Colorado sky with the mountains in the background. Wheat Ridge-based Brewery Rickoli brews the beer.

“Brewers for Colorado brewed Crystal Clear Colorado Ale to commemorate what we hope are new, stronger air quality standards,” explained Rick Abitbol, of Brewery Rickoli. “The continued success of our craft beer industry depends on protecting the clean air, water, land and healthy outdoor lifestyle that is our marketing brand.”

Environmentalists, of course, also weighed in on Wednesday, calling the proposal a step in the right direction and noting the massive outpouring of comments from concerned citizens.

“Coloradans from Grand Junction to Greeley made their voices heard in support of strong protections to address pollution from oil and gas operations,” Pete Maysmith, executive director of Conservation Colorado, said following the hearing on Wednesday.

“Oil and gas drilling and development has mushroomed in our state and we must do all we can to provide cleaner air for our children and our communities,” he added. “Over the course of this long hearing it’s important for the commissioners to remember the overwhelming support they heard today from citizens across Colorado… The commission needs to adopt the rules as they are and not give in to some in the industry who want to weaken them.”

Some conservation groups — including the Sierra Club, Earthworks, the Natural Resources Defense Council and WildEarth Guardians — have proposed alternate rules that call for even tougher standards.

These include expanding the proposed leak detection and repair requirements for compressors and tanks; requiring companies to retrofit all pneumatic devices emitting VOCs at a higher rate; and adopting language that reduces phase-in times for certain requirements.

“The Division Proposal includes important controls that will reduce ozone precursor emissions at a time when Colorado is facing increasing ozone pollution… But the Commission must do more to adequately address the public health and global warming concerns associated with growing oil and gas development in Colorado,” read a pre-hearing statement by the conservation groups proposing the alternate plan.

Environmentalists and community activists had the support of several elected officials, including Rep. Mike Foote, D-Lafayette, who has made oil and gas regulation a legislative priority.

“We hear the public talk about their concerns with air quality and I’m hoping that what this commission approves can let the public know that we’re listening to them loud and clear,” testified Foote.

Joining him was Sen. Matt Jones, D-Louisville, who has also made oil and gas issues a top priority in his Boulder County district, where several communities have banned fracking.

“We need common sense rules, and I think that that’s what you have done, and I think that’s a great step forward for the state,” said Jones, alluding to the fact that it is likely that the commission will adopt the rules.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, has also been fighting for increased rules and regulations. He offered his own comments in support of the rulemaking.

“The commission should retain the strong standards set by the proposed rule, and take additional steps to ensure compliance with federal air quality standards,” Polis wrote to the commission. “Taken together, these measures will help Colorado successfully and responsibly curb harmful emissions from oil and gas facilities to protect the public good long into the future.”

Some in industry a bit concerned

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association and the Colorado Petroleum Association both acknowledge that air quality is a concern, and they are primarily on board with the proposals.

The two groups have offered an alternative proposal, however, that seeks to clarify certain points, but it does not suggest sweeping changes.

Most of the industry’s concerns revolve around VOCs and greenhouse gas emissions. It has recommended that the commission reflect that regulations govern VOCs and not greenhouse gas emissions.

“The commission should not and cannot adopt proposed rules directly regulating GHG emissions from the oil and gas sector,” industry representatives wrote in a pre-hearing statement to the commission.

The alternative proposal also calls for the commission to “reflect maintenance and safety considerations, including the need to vent from storage tanks; address timing of implementation of the various programs (including availability of equipment and development of comprehensive monitoring, inspection, recordkeeping and reporting programs); reduce the frequency of requirements to account for the reductions in emission that occur over time under leak detection and repair (LDAR) programs; eliminate proposals for which the Division has not yet provided an explanation or basis; and address other technical and operational considerations.”

“CPA and COGA members want to do their part in reducing volatile organic compound emissions and acknowledge the co-benefits associated with methane reduction that are achieved by reducing volatile organic compound emissions,” the statement says. “As evidenced by their and their members’ extensive participation in the 10-month stakeholder group, CPA and COGA are willing to work with the Division and the Commission to develop reasonable provisions for the protection of air quality and further reduction of volatile organic compound emissions.

“As a result, CPA and COGA have not proposed significant revisions to many of the Division’s Proposed Rules and have in fact retained many of the concepts and general programs and requirements proposed by the Division in the Proposed Rules,” the statement continued.

Several elected Republicans came to the defense of the industry during testimony, at times appearing more passionate than the industry itself. State Sen. Greg Brophy of Wray, who is seeking his party’s nomination to challenge Hickenlooper, aggressively took on the environmentalists and community activists attending the hearing on Wednesday.

“America’s skies are cleaner, they are healthier, they shine a little brighter and bluer each and every day including today because of the enlarged role that natural gas plays in powering the American economy,” Brophy said, at times turning to the audience during his remarks.

“That’s right, our skies are cleaner today with many more people living here than they were years ago,” he continued. “Glad that Colorado’s skies are cleaner than ever? Hug a fracker. The natural gas they produce is one of the reasons why.

“The true ‘flat earthers’ in the American energy debate are the extreme environmental groups who make wildly exaggerated claims about the climate impacts of greenhouse gases, while at the very same time doing everything in their power to stop natural gas development — the energy source that is actually reducing all emission types, including carbon,” he added, shrugging off groans from the audience.

“Flat earthers, thy name is the Sierra Club…” he continued. “We might be the first state in the nation to cloud our skies with marijuana smoke, but let’s not become the first state in the nation to regulate methane.”

Rep. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, also came to the industry’s defense, pointing to the economic benefits oil and gas development provides, especially to his Western Slope district.

“We have a legislative district that is supported by the oil and gas industry, that is our backbone,” said Scott. “Whether we like that or we don’t like that, it is a true fact, and that’s the way it is.”

Peter@coloradostatesman.com