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Colorado’s fracking rules are toughest in nation and might spread

Colorado adopted the nation's toughest fracking rules. Will they spread?
Colorado adopted the nation's toughest fracking rules. Will they spread?
David Zalubowski/AP Photo

A month ago, Colorado approved new groundbreaking rules for the oil and gas industry that will reduce fugitive methane leaks and also rein in gases that can cause health problems, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene, a known carcinogen. The rules exceed regulations issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2012.

Colorado’s new standards are expected to have a dramatic impact on air quality. State regulators predict they will eliminate at least 92,000 tons of VOCs annually — more than all the VOCs that Colorado’s cars emit each year.

Colorado Governor Hickenlooper negotiated the new rules with environmental groups and fracking companies The tough rules require oil and gas companies to regularly monitor and repair unintentional, or “fugitive,” leaks of gases that have adverse climate effects, like methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and other dangerous chemicals. They will be fully implemented by 2016.

Many energy companies participated in the rule-making process, but only four of them — Anadarko Petroleum Corp., DCP Midstream, Encana Corp. and Noble Energy, Inc. — fully support the new regulations.

John Christiansen, a spokesman for Anadarko, said the Colorado rules offer “a very common-sense approach to constructively addressing something that is very important to the people of Colorado.” He hopes they will help “build public trust as we move forward with our operations there.” He said the Colorado rules also make financial sense for the industry because instead of releasing some of the gases into the air, the companies can collect and sell them.

Rules will cut methane emissions 40 percent

A recent study commissioned by EDF and conducted by the consulting firm ICF International found that if the U.S. oil and gas industry adopted many of the same technologies that Colorado now requires, the industry’s methane emissions could be cut 40 percent and could save the U.S. economy more than $100 million a year. This would have a significant impact on the gasses that are responsible for climate change.

Colorado’s rules will be applied statewide, and directly address methane, a greenhouse gas that is 20 to 100 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. They require all storage tanks that release more than six tons of VOCs a year to use technology that reduces emissions by at least 95 percent. Operators will have five working days to fix fugitive leaks unless they can prove more time is needed.

Colorado’s tough, new air pollution rules are already making an impact in Texas according to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which played a leading role among the environmental organizations that helped craft the Colorado rules. Several companies have approached the nonprofit EDF and discussed whether Colorado’s rules make sense for Texas, according to Jim Marston, a vice president at EDF. Anadarko and DCP Midstream, which supported the Colorado rules, also operate in Texas.

One reason some of the oil and gas companies agreed to these tough rules is that they need to convince the public that fracking is safe. Voters in four communities in Colorado voted to ban fracking in 2012. Clearly the oil and gas companies would rather clean the air than fight communities that want to ban fracking.

Colorado has given the nation a model to address one of the major contributors to climate change — fugitive methane. The Republican Congress will not act to protect Americans and the climate. Perhaps if the oil and gas industry nudges recalcitrant governors in other states, action will be taken to mitigate the dangerous impact of the oil and gas boom largely attributed to fracking.

The world is watching.

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