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Colorado’s landmark methane rules raise bar for federal climate action

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Blog, Environmental Defense Fund

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  • Mar 18, 2021

By Dan Grossman

Last month, Colorado regulators unanimously adopted nation-leading rules to cut methane pollution from pneumatic devices, an often overlooked but significant source of emissions from oil and gas production.

The commonsense standards drew support from the oil and gas industry and Colorado’s environmental community, and will require the use of modern, zero-emitting components at all new and most existing facilities statewide.  In 2019 EDF helped secure adoption of rules that require operators to find and fix malfunctioning pneumatic devices during their required leak detection and repair inspections.

As the Biden administration moves to get methane regulation back on track at the federal level, it should take note of the progress being made in Colorado. Robust federal methane regulations, identified as a priority in the president’s Jan. 20 executive order, will depend on these kinds of commonsense, high-impact solutions.

Small devices, serious emissions

Although small, pneumatic controllers — devices that open and close valves to regulate temperature and pressure at production facilities and well sites — have a serious impact on our climate and air quality.

They are the second largest source of methane emissions from oil and gas operations in Colorado. EDF estimates that pneumatic controllers in Colorado annually release more than 132,000 metric tons of methane — a greenhouse gas over 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide — with the same climate impact as 1.9 million passenger cars.

Nationally, requiring zero-bleed pneumatic controllers for new sources starting in 2022 could reduce over three million metric tons of methane over the next five years. That would have the same near-term climate impact as taking about 16.2 million cars off the road by 2027.By following Colorado’s lead, the EPA can make a significant dent in methane emissions from the nation’s oil and gas industry.

Pneumatic controllers also release volatile organic compounds, which contribute to ozone pollution and smog, as well as cancer-causing benzene and other hazardous air pollutants. Reducing these emissions is essential for improving air quality and protecting public health across the country. In Colorado, these new regulations will play a role in tackling smog in the Denver metro area.

Commonsense solutions

Although traditionally designed to emit methane and other emissions every time they open and close, newer non-emitting pneumatic devises are now widely available for oil and gas operations. These cleaner, innovative options represent a clear opportunity to reduce pollution.

Colorado’s Air Quality Control Commission unanimously voted to take advantage of this opportunity and adopted rules that require all new and modified production sites, as well as compressor stations, to use non-emitting pneumatic controllers.

The rules also establish a first-in-the-nation requirement to phase in retrofits of existing pneumatic controllers with non-emitting alternatives. Under this approach, operators must first survey all of their operations to determine what percentage of their wells use emitting controllers, and then craft and implement a plan to transition these facilities to zero-emitting devices by May 2023.

This allows operators to determine the most cost-effective way to transition their existing facilities to zero-bleed pneumatic devices.

Continued progress is needed to curb oil and gas emissions, but Colorado’s latest rulemaking showcases that high-impact opportunities are available that work for companies and — most importantly — deliver on the pollution cuts Coloradans’ climate and health depend on.

Federal policymakers should take note as they advance methane regulations that will protect communities across the country.

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