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A large new drilling operation sits ...
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
A large new drilling operation sits near the Denver and Front Range Landfills close to housing subdivisions on June 7, 2017 in Erie. Some neighbors don’t mind the drilling operations while others would rather in not be there. Gas and oil development, exploration and fracking operations are colliding more and more with subdivision and housing developments as the front range continues to grow. The operation is surrounded with large noise dampening walls.
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Oil and gas operators in the Front Range would have to retrofit equipment and conduct more frequent inspections to detect leaks if state regulators on Friday approve proposed rules aimed at helping alleviate smog concerns.

More than 100 people showed up Thursday for a public hearing on the new rules before the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission. Nearly all of those speaking, some of whom were mothers carrying infants, urged the commission to grant final approval on Friday and consider putting in place even tighter regulations on the industry.

The rules were drafted for oil and gas operations along the Front Range and are meant to address concerns that federal regulators have raised about air quality in the counties of Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Broomfield, Denver, Douglas, Jefferson, Larimer and Weld. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has said the region is out of compliance with federal standards for ozone pollution and has given the state until July 2018 to meet those standards.

Many of those who spoke during Thursday’s public hearing drove up from western Colorado counties and urged the commission to expand the rules to ensure they apply to oil and gas drillers on the Western Slope too.

State regulators currently plan to address the Western Slope concerns separately over the next two years. But Karen Sjoberg, a resident of Mesa County speaking on behalf of environmental advocacy group Citizens for Clean Air, urged the commission to immediately ensure the rules for Front Range energy companies apply to the entire state.

“As we look to the future in Mesa County, there are advanced plans for 108 oil wells and increased natural gas drilling throughout the valley,” Sjoberg said. “Currently, there are over 1,000 active oil and gas operations in Mesa County alone, and over 18,500 across the Western Slope.”

While the EPA has not found the Grand Valley to have the same air quality concerns as the Front Range, “we would like to keep it that way,” Sjoberg said.

“In fact we would like to keep ozone levels low enough to not have significant effects on human health and agricultural productivity,” she added.

State regulators are holding the public hearing over the pollution concerns at a time of heightened conflict between oil and gas operations and residential areas. Drilling and residential construction are both booming in the state, prompting political friction over issues ranging from how close drilling should be permitted to housing and schools to whether new oil and gas pipeline regulations are needed. Exacerbating tensions was a fatal house explosion in April in Firestone that investigators have linked to a severed natural gas pipeline.

A coalition of environmental groups that includes Biological Diversity, Earthworks, Natural Resources Defense Council and the Sierra Club has pushed to extend some of the proposed air quality rules statewide, and also has urged even more robust inspections for some facilities than is called for in the proposal.

“A statewide rule is consistent with Governor Hickenlooper’s recent executive order committing to reduce state greenhouse gas emissions by more than 26 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, and will continue the state’s leadership in addressing methane pollution from oil and gas sources,” that coalition said in a recent letter to the commission.

“Without taking stronger action, oil and gas sector emissions will continue to push the Denver Metro/North Front Range into nonattainment, leading to increasingly severe regulatory restrictions and continued public health problems,” that letter further added.

Industry and business leaders have argued that spreading the proposed regulations to other areas of the state should not be done without first giving drillers a chance to weigh in on the financial stresses the regulations would cause.

“While we believe that strong environmental standards and natural resources development can co-exist, there must be correct balance, as overregulating an already highly regulated industry would have negative economic consequences with little improvement in the environment,” said Nicholas Colglazier, director of the Colorado Competitive Council, which is an affiliate of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, during the hearing.

He stressed that the oil and gas industry employs 40,000 people and contributes $16 billion to the state’s economy.

“We, along with the industry, support the large majority of the current proposed rule, and it is crucial to maintain the rule’s focus to the nonattainment areas along the Front Range,” Colglazier said.

The proposal would affect more than 7,000 facilities operating in the Front Range, and the  increased costs for new inspections and record keeping would cost them about $5 million annually, state regulators have estimated.

If the rule changes are approved, operators would have to inspect some natural gas compressor stations four times a year instead of the current rate of once a year. Inspections for smaller well production facilities also would increase to once a year instead of once in their lifetime. If an air emission defect or a leak is detected, the new rules would require operators to attempt a repair within five days and complete a repair no later than 15 days after the problem is detected.

“I am mom to a 4-year-old and 9-month-old Lumina,” said Christine Berg, the mayor of Lafayette, during Thursday’s hearing, holding her youngest as she spoke into the microphone. “Lu woke up early today to advocate for the expansion and monitoring and leak detection and repair on oil and gas wells statewide to protect her little lungs from air pollution.”

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