DACONO, Colo. — State health inspectors equipped with infrared cameras dropped in unannounced on about 2,000 oil and gas operations across Colorado last year and found leaks of heat-trapping methane and volatile organic gas at 13 percent of those sites — half the frequency of leaks they detected five years ago.
Tougher anti-pollution enforcement, including inspections like these, has emerged as an option for Gov. Jared Polis and state lawmakers as they re-focus government oversight of the oil and gas industry — one of the contributors to Colorado’s poor air quality.
The latest data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment show that these oil and gas site inspections, which started in 2013, may spur significant improvement.
“We’re happy to see the trend. Less is better. It shows the importance of inspections and maintenance program like this,” Christopher Laplante, the state health department’s Air Pollution Control Division inspection and permitting supervisor, said last week at an Extraction Oil and Gas facility east of Dacono, in southwestern Weld County.
It was a fairly typical site: eight wells, 16 round tan storage tanks, pipelines, processing units and flaring stacks perched atop a gravel pad on a former farm field. When inspectors arrive, they start by simply walking around looking, listening and sniffing — before pulling out the infrared devices that make toxic air pollution as visible as an approaching storm.
The inspections are happening amid rising concerns about persistently unhealthy air that may be deteriorating. Colorado’s Front Range has flunked federal air quality health standards for more than a decade. The Environmental Protection Agency soon is expected to reclassify Colorado from being a “moderate” air-quality violator to a “serious” one.
State monitoring has identified the expanding oil and gas industry as the biggest source of the volatile organic compounds that lead to the formation of ozone smog and a major source of the methane that is worsening climate change.
Fossil-fuel companies have drilled more than 53,000 wells statewide, steadily increasing production, reaching a new all-time production high last year of 177 million barrels of oil.
But with a staff of just nine inspectors, the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment cannot visit most industry sites every year. State health officials pick from the roughly 11,000 established oil and gas sites statewide that have been issued the air pollution permits required under the federal Clean Air Act. These permits set limits on emissions.
A typical site might be inspected once in five years. Since 2013, state documents show, inspectors have visited a total of 10,325 sites.
And in Colorado, inspections aren’t done during the first 90 days when companies typically drill and conduct hydraulic fracturing. Colorado air pollution control officials have invoked a 27-year-old state regulatory exemption that lets companies produce for three months without the permits required under federal law.
Only the oil and gas industry receives this exemption in Colorado. The rationale is that, during those first 90 days, companies can discover how many tons a year their operations are likely to emit and inform state regulators, who then take that amount into account before imposing a limit.
Yet this exemption may not be legal under the Clean Air Act. U.S. Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colorado, this month called for ending it, and the environmental organization WildEarth Guardians is preparing a lawsuit. Colorado health officials have said they will review of the legality of the exemption.
Jill Hunsaker Ryan, director of the state health department, on Friday told The Denver Post that the agency is “fully aligned with Gov. Polis in his mission to reduce pollution throughout Colorado. In our state, we cherish the environment and expect clean air to breathe. It’s time for us to move as swiftly as possible to get back in good standing with federal ozone standards.
“Going forward, the department will be examining and developing strategies to reduce pollution at all stages of oil and gas development.”
This past week, state air pollution inspectors went to the Extraction site east of Dacono as part of an annual push to build understanding.
The inspectors showed 60 industry workers in hard hats, flame-retardant clothing and boots — from Anadarko Petroleum, PDC Energy, DCP Midstream and other oil and gas companies — what they look for when visiting sites: They point the infrared cameras at storage tanks, flares that burn off gas before it can spread, above-ground pipelines and other equipment.
Colorado’s inspections program is designed to spur quick compliance. When inspectors detect a leak, they notify companies that same day. “Some leaks may be indicative of violations,” Air Pollution Control Division director Garry Kaufman said in a recent interview.
But rather than punish by issuing tickets, inspectors order repairs. Companies are required to initiate fixes within five days, unless they fill out a form justifying a delay.
Oil and gas company officials said they’ve embraced this approach.
“We treat each other with mutual respect. We want to comply,” Extraction air quality manager Kathy Steerman said.
Extraction crews have three of their own infrared cameras, which cost about $100,000 each, and use these to inspect facilities to detect leaks. The company also works with consulting firms that have access to more cameras.
Colorado’s largest oil and gas producer, Anadarko Petroleum, deploys drones equipped with infrared devices that fly over sites for initial detection of air pollution that could exceed limits. Anadarko officials said they send out ground crews to visit any site where drones detect leaks.
The company also has shifted away from the use of storage tanks — which hold 400 barrels of crude oil and long have been seen as a main source of toxic pollution — by funneling more oil and gas through pipelines to consolidated facilities.
In the coming months, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and other agencies charged with protecting public health and the environment must make new rules to implement regulatory reforms that Polis last week signed into law.
The new oil and gas law directs the health department’s Air Quality Control Commission to consider adopting tougher regulations, including increased detection of the leaks that worsen air pollution. Monitoring oil and gas industry air pollution for years has fallen to the health department because it has experience and more staff trained to inspect industrial facilities.
Extraction will work together with inspectors and communities, Steerman said.
“Technology has changed. Desire for betterment is driven by the top echelon of the culture. For every facility and per barrel produced, emissions have been on the decline,” she said. “We’re not afraid of any of the changing rules.”
State air pollution inspections at oil and gas sites started in 2013 as a pilot project using four infrared cameras. Many of the first 4,500 sites inspected had not been visited before. The project became permanent in 2016. The agency has added a fifth infrared device and has the authority to hire two more inspectors.
Initially, the state’s inspectors detected leaks at 28 percent of the sites they visited, according to a program assessment completed in March. In 2018, leaks were detected at 13 percent of sites visited.
Companies aren’t told when inspectors will drop by — better for seeing “as-is conditions,” Laplante said.
While individual sites are emitting less air pollution, “there’s a lot more production of oil and gas — so there’s greater emissions overall because there’s more activity. But there’s less emissions per site,” Laplante said.
State health department documents indicate the oil and gas industry annually emits more than 70,000 tons (63,502 metric tons) of toxic air pollution along the Front Range.
Environmental advocacy groups are pushing for more frequent and rigorous inspections. One group, Earthworks, has been conducting its own inspections using an infrared camera.
“The inspection program is not sufficient,” Center for Biological Diversity attorney Robert Ukeiley said. “We continue to violate the ambient ozone standards. . There are so few inspectors that they only get to certain facilities.”
Ukeiley acknowledged that “some individual facilities may be polluting less.” But Colorado’s air pollution division “is constantly permitting the addition of new polluting facilities. So we’re constantly adding more pollution to our air.”
State records show that 74 percent of the 10,325 sites inspected since 2013 had not been inspected before using an infrared device to detect pollution.
Information from: The Denver Post, http://www.denverpost.com