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Sunday, December 4, 2016

By Zahra Hirji, Lisa Song and Jim Morris, InsideClimate News

Colorado’s tough, new air pollution rules for the oil and gas industry were approved only a month ago, but they’re already making an impact in Texas, where lawmakers and energy companies have long-resisted tightening air standards.

Several companies have approached the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and expressed interest in discussing whether Colorado’s rules make sense for Texas, according to Jim Marston, a vice president at EDF. Marston didn’t name the companies.

“The companies are often ahead of the Texas state government,” said Marston, who works in the group’s Austin office. “If some important industry leaders like the idea, it might move state government.”

EDF played a leading role among the environmental organizations that helped craft the Colorado rules. Many energy companies also 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.

Anadarko and DCP Midstream also operate in Texas.

The Colorado Oil & Gas Association, a trade group, had strong objections to some of the rules. For example, the association argued against requiring regular leak inspections at small storage tanks.

Marston said the individual companies’ support was crucial for the rules’ approval — and would be necessary in Texas, too. “We don’t pretend we could have done it ourselves,” he said.

Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, a citizen advocacy group, also found hope in Colorado’s actions. “Frequently, legislators in this state ask for other models to look to, and Colorado, being a big oil and gas state, is somewhere Texas officials will take seriously,” he said.

Neither Metzger nor Marston expects much action in Texas during this election year, when key positions, including governor and energy regulators, are being contested.

In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper’s office and the state’s Department of Public Health and Environment led the process. “I’d love to think we could have the support of the governor in Texas,” Marston said, “but that’s probably a lot less likely than in Colorado.”

A recent eight-month investigation by InsideClimate News, the Center for Public Integrity and The Weather Channel revealed that nearly one in four of Texas’ current legislators or their spouses own stock or receive royalties from companies operating in the Eagle Ford Shale, one of the nation’s most active drilling regions. The report also found that Texas does little to monitor or limit the industry’s air pollution. The number of drilling permits issued in the Eagle Ford increased 168-fold in six years — from 26 in 2008 to 4,416 in 2013 — while the budget of the state’s environmental regulatory agency was slashed 39 percent. During that period residents filed hundreds of complaints about oil and gas drilling activities.

Colorado’s 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. They 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, which won’t fully be implemented until 2015. The EPA rules don’t directly address methane, and some of the most important apply only to gas wells.

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.

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.”

Last year, four Colorado communities banned hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, an extraction technique used on oil and gas wells. People who live near drilling sites in other states have also voiced concern about the industry’s air pollution, the risk of groundwater contamination and the surge of earthquakes linked to underground disposal of fracking wastewater.

Christiansen said the Colorado rules also make financial sense for the industry. Instead of releasing some of the gases into the air, companies can collect and sell them.

When asked whether Anadarko would voluntarily adopt the Colorado standards at its Texas operations, Christiansen said the company would have to gauge their effectiveness in Colorado before “(we) determine whether or not it applies to other areas.”

DCP Midstream, which also operates in Texas, did not respond to requests for comment.