For about five years, Von Bortz and Amy Smith have lived in rural Larimer County on property where they run a sanctuary for farm animals. The location is good: It’s close to Fort Collins and Colorado State University, home to one of the country’s top veterinary schools.
But about 1,200 feet north of their land sits something that could make them decide to leave.
“I’m stressed out because I don’t know what I want to do,” Bortz said. “Do I want to move, do I want to stay?”
Up the road are two oil wells and tanks holding crude oil and produced water — the water that comes out of a well and can contain chemicals and fracking fluids. When the odor is strong, Bortz and Smith said they get headaches and nausea.
What the two said they’ve been smelling off and on since at least 2018 becomes visible through a special camera used by Andrew Klooster of Earthworks, an environmental organization. Klooster’s optical gas imaging camera uses thermal infrared technology to detect otherwise invisible leaks or plumes of methane and hydrocarbons escaping from tanks and pipes.
This week, the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission is considering new rules that would require more frequent inspections of well sites using the special cameras and other methods. In what proponents of stronger rules are calling a major step and a national example, the proposed regulations would require yearly inspections of low-producing wells currently subject to just a once-in-a-lifetime mandatory check.
The proposals by the state Air Pollution Control Division would increase the number of inspections for higher-producing wells statewide and sites in communities that have been disproportionately affected by pollution.
“That every well has to be inspected is a major win,” Klooster said. “It’s going to cover a lot of facilities that haven’t been inspected frequently enough.”
The proposed regulations are the result of several state laws, including ones that set goals for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions to address climate change and reduce the effects of pollution and oil and gas development on communities that have borne a disproportionate share of the burden.
The commission faces the looming deadline of Jan. 1 to pass rules directing the oil and gas industry to cut emissions by at least 26% by 2025 and 60% by 2030, based on 2005 levels. Most agree the industry is on track to meet the 2025 goal, but more is needed to realize the next objective.
The proposed regulations target emissions of methane, a potent heat-trapping gas, and volatile organic compounds, chemicals that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone. The compounds include benzene, known to cause cancer. Ozone can cause and aggravate respiratory problems.
A big swath of the Front Range exceeds the federal limit on ozone pollution. Vehicle exhaust and oil and gas operations are major sources.
“Colorado would be setting the tone for what a nation-leading methane rule should look like,” said Matt Garrington, senior manager of state campaigns for the Environmental Defense Fund.
The Environmental Protection Agency is looking at regulations to decrease methane emissions from oil and gas sites. The EPA said the oil and gas industry is the largest industrial source of methane emissions in the U.S.
“If Colorado adopts the proposal that’s before them now, they would be setting an important precedent that the EPA should look toward,” Garrington said.
The federal government followed the state’s lead on methane after Colorado became the first state in the country in 2014 to regulate methane. Rules by the Obama administration, which the Trump administration rolled back, were modeled after Colorado’s.
The EPA will focus on leak, detection and repair, or LDAR, as it develops new rules, said Mike Paules, associate director of the American Petroleum Institute-Colorado. Using the thermal imaging cameras is a key part of LDAR.
Paules said the industry is concerned about how any new Colorado rules will fit with EPA’s rules. “We want to make sure that we are aligned there and that Colorado’s program will not be in conflict.”
Another concern for the industry is the frequency of inspections under the pollution control division’s proposal. The proposal incorporates some of the Environmental Defense Fund’s suggestions, which recommended even more frequent checks.
Paules said state officials used outdated data to put together their revised proposal.
“If we would use Colorado-specific data and a more updated model that’s now being used even by EPA, we would show that some of these proposed increases in LDAR frequency just aren’t justified,” Paules said.
The proposed rules would keep some inspection rates the same, but shift others sites to bimonthly from quarterly and to semi-annual from annual. Other provisions look at stronger standards for equipment and the combustion used to burn off methane that isn’t captured.
The state revised its proposed rules after getting pushback from environmental and community organizations and local governments about its heavier focus on what is referred to as an “intensity” program instead of direct regulations.
Under an intensity program, companies would have to develop plans to achieve specified greenhouse-gas emissions. Different companies would likely have different plans. Considered crucial to the program is a thorough system for verifying a company’s emission levels. The commission will look at rules for verification in 2023.
Under direct regulation, the state would pass policies that apply to all operators with the idea that if they complied, they would achieve certain reductions in emissions.
The proposal before the commission is a combination of both approaches. That disappoints Ean Tafoya, the state director of GreenLatinos.
“I think that when a great majority of the disproportionately impacted communities and other community members came out and said no to (the intensity approach) and they’re moving forward with it, they’re not listening,” Tafoya said.
“For my community, it seems they’re allowing companies to come up with a plan for themselves that’s kind of individual,” Tafoya added. “It’s already a challenge for my community to participate” in the process.
After filming the tanks at the well site in Larimer County, and seeing plumes stream from both the oil and water tanks over the last several months, Klooster of Earthworks filed complaints with the state air pollution control division. Bortz also filed complaints about the site owned by Colorado-based Prospect Energy.
The company’s owner, Ward Giltner, said he made repairs to the tanks and is going to replace the water tanks. “My goal is to make sure the tanks aren’t leaking and that’s where we’re at right now.”
Bortz hopes the work will be done, but said he’s frustrated that he and Klooster have been working to resolve the situation since at least January.
“The whole system is backwards and the whole system is in favor of the oil and gas industry and not people like me,” Bortz said.
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