Garfield County wants its drillers exempt from rules

by Nelson Harvey, Aspen Daily News Staff Writer

The Garfield County commissioners will send a letter to state air pollution regulators today arguing that local oil and gas operators shouldn’t be subject to the same requirements for finding and patching methane leaks as operators working on the more populous and polluted Front Range.

The letter comes in response to new rules proposed last fall by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper meant to reduce emissions of methane — a potent greenhouse gas and global warming contributor — during the extraction and transport of natural gas.

Burning natural gas releases less carbon dioxide than burning coal or oil, but some research suggests that methane leaks in the natural gas production chain may at least partly cancel out that fuel’s carbon advantage.

The commissioners’ letter argues that the county is now in compliance with federal air quality rules, and that emissions of several key pollutants have actually fallen in the county since the natural gas boom peaked in 2008. Therefore, the letter states, Garfield County should face less stringent methane leak regulations than the nine counties on Colorado’s Front Range where concentrations of some pollutants exceed federal standards. 

“There are no locations in Colorado outside of the Northern Front Range and Denver Metropolitan Area non-attainment area (NAA) that fail to meet EPA National Ambient Air Quality Standards,” reads the letter. Rather than a “one size fits all” set of regulations, the letter suggests, “… a flexible science-based set of rules could equally, or perhaps more optimally and effectively, achieve stated emission control goals …”

The proposed rules would be the first of their kind in the nation. They would require companies to check frequently for methane leaks in their storage tanks, pipelines and production equipment, repair them quickly and keep detailed records of their work, among other provisions. They would apply to both new and existing gas wells, requiring some companies to install new equipment in order to comply.

The rules were drafted in partnership with three large natural gas companies — Encana, Noble and Anadarko — along with the environmental group Environmental Defense Fund. But they have aroused opposition from many smaller gas companies and some public officials in jurisdictions not troubled by the air pollution problems plaguing the Front Range.

Representatives of the oil and gas industry voiced concerns about the new rules at a special Garfield County commissioners meeting held on Wednesday to finalize the letter to the state.

David Ludlam, director of the West Slope Colorado Oil and Gas Association, argued that most wells in Garfield County are rural ones that already are operating at a loss, and burdening them with more regulatory requirements could harm the bottom lines of local gas companies.

“On the Front Range, you have really big wells in an [air pollution] non-attainment area, and within the municipal boundaries of this non-attainment area,” Ludlam said.

On the Western Slope, by contrast, “Many of our locations are 50 miles from the nearest house and 100 miles from the nearest town,” he added.

Commissioner Tom Jankovsky expressed sympathy for Ludlam’s position and advocated for a more varied set of rules across Colorado.

“I think monthly inspections and probably six-month inspections don’t work in Garfield County,” he said. “If you put more cost onto our operators, you will start losing operators and losing jobs.”

Roughly 20 members of local environmental groups also attended the meeting to argue that Garfield County shouldn’t fight the proposed state rules. 

Peggy Tibbets, a Silt resident who writes a blog called “From the Styx” that’s often critical of oil and gas development, disputed the assertion that air quality throughout Garfield County is currently pristine. She also questioned why the county didn’t maintain an air quality monitoring station in Silt.

“We are surrounded by oil and gas to the north, east, south and west … everyone in my family suffers from allergies all year round,” Tibbets said, showing the commissioners bottles of oxygen, nasal spray and other respiratory aids that she claims to use daily to help her breathe. “The pollution burns our eyes, ears, nose and throat.”

The state Air Pollution Control Division will hold a hearing on the proposed methane rules from Feb. 19-21 in Aurora, and Garfield County has teamed up with Rio Blanco, Moffat, Mesa and Montezuma counties to participate in the hearing process.