A playground and a bike path are nestled between a row of homes in the Thornton neighborhood of North Creek Farms. Roughly 200 feet away is an oil and gas drilling site that is leaking hydrocarbons like methane.

On one brisk but sunny February day, Andrew Klooster stood in the snow just off the bike path, hunched over a tripod supporting a camera aimed at the site. Since it’s impossible to see leaking hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds with the naked eye, Klooster uses an infrared thermal imaging camera primarily used by oil and gas companies to self-monitor their sites for pollution.

Andrew Klooster stares into his optical gas imaging camera.

Klooster is a field advocate for EarthWorks, a national environmental advocacy nonprofit, meaning he travels to oil and gas wells across Colorado with his camera, checking for leaks.

“The general sort of rhythm or cadence of the fieldwork is generally, people reach out to us because they’re concerned about a facility, either because they smell odors, they are actually experiencing health impacts and they believe it’s connected to the facility, or they’re just concerned about an area of operations because wells are close to homes or schools,” Klooster said.

The well near the playground didn’t appear to be leaking, but footage from Klooster’s thermographic camera reveals spewing hydrocarbons that would otherwise be invisible.

Klooster had been to the site the previous week when warm temperatures meant the bike path and playground were crawling with people.

“I was out here last weekend and it was a jarring sight to stumble upon because there are all these families at the playground and on the bike path,” Klooster said. “In the back of my head, I was wondering if I should be the raving madman telling these families to get out of here. ‘Don’t play right here!’ kind of thing. But it looks benign. The site doesn’t smell unless you’re downwind or right next to it. That’s why I’m here filming it.”

The leaking oil and gas tank is 200 feet away from a Thornton playground.

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and can be lethally harmful to humans. Hydrocarbons, such as gasoline, kerosene, and types of oil, are also potentially lethal to humans if they enter the lungs.

When Klooster films a site that’s leaking, EarthWorks posts its videos online to educate people about the seemingly harmless oil and gas operations so close to their homes.

“It allows us to see these pollutants and then to highlight them in a way that is otherwise inaccessible to the general public because this technology isn’t widely available,” Klooster explained.

In addition to this public education component, Klooster’s footage is intended to hold both operators and regulators accountable.

According to several state-by-state analyses, Colorado has some of the toughest environmental regulations in the country, including the regulations on oil and gas operators. However, these regulations, which have been made stricter by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC) and the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission in the past few months, still rely on self-reported data from oil and gas companies.

In September, Colorado Newsline reported on whistleblowers and ex-employees from Colorado’s air agency, the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division (APCD), suggesting it favored polluters by allowing them to ignore air pollution standards.

In 2020, the COGCC passed a rule saying new oil and gas drill sites had to be set back 2,000 feet from homes and schools in Colorado, the biggest setback rule in the country.

Except in case of emergency, any venting from wells or tanks is prohibited under Colorado state rules. Colorado and Alaska are the only two states in the U.S. to ban venting, which is the intentional release of methane into the atmosphere from a tank, well, or pipeline — as opposed to accidental leaks due to faulty or old infrastructure.

In Colorado, companies that emit air pollutants (like oil and gas companies do with methane) are required to register for a permit with the state to comply with air quality regulations, unless their emissions are below a certain threshold. These emissions are self-reported by the companies.

The way that we calculate permits for pollution on sources in Colorado is exactly just that. It’s a calculation,” Klooster said. “The state doesn’t come and monitor a source and say, ‘Okay, your tank is below this pollution threshold. Therefore, you don’t need to get a permit.’ Operators basically plug numbers into a formula and determine whether or not they’re above or below a pollution threshold. And so that doesn’t sit well with me, but that is currently how we do our air permitting in this state.”

When Klooster sees emissions from an oil and gas site, it means that the site is either venting or leaking. Either way, it’s causing pollution.

“I’ve been finding on quite a few of these low-producing sites tanks that are venting and intentionally venting,” Klooster explained. “This isn’t a leak or a malfunction, it’s something that is intentional and they’re permitted to do that. They’re permitted to have ‘uncontrolled actual emissions,’ that’s the exact phrase the Air Pollution Control Division uses because they’re below pollution thresholds.”

Since the COGCC and APCD accept complaints from citizens if they think there’s a leak at an oil and gas site or if they’re concerned about their health because of a site, Klooster submits a complaint whenever he films leakage at a site.

“If the site was operating as efficiently as operators claim their sites are always operating, we shouldn’t be seeing pollution from some of these sources,” Klooster said. “So, if we do, those are telltale signs that something is wrong.”

Klooster submits oil and gas site pollution complaints to both the COGCC and the APCD, viewing the process as a prime example of the flaws he sees in Colorado’s regulations.

“The problem is that so few of our rules once adopted actually do get implemented on the ground properly,” Klooster said. “There’s a disconnect. The state passes rules. Colorado champions the rules they pass, ‘We’re leading the nation in our environmental regulations!’ And the reality on the ground is when I come out here and look at what’s going on at the sites there is not a huge difference between 2019 and today.”

When he submits a complaint, the state takes Klooster’s footage and presents it to the operator for an explanation.

“The operator either dismisses our video evidence, gives some explanation as to why emissions may be occurring (an open valve or emissions are allowed because of permitting thresholds), or conducts their own independent inspection and does not turn up any issues,” Klooster said.

Klooster films a leaking oil and gas well in a Thornton neighborhood.

Despite ample evidence of hydrocarbon leakage at oil and gas sites, the state does not often confirm the operator’s response to be truthful or hand out violations to oil and gas companies.

Klooster theorizes that the reason the state does not visit sites themselves to check on these complaints is because of a lack of capacity to do so. Colorado has over 50,000 oil and gas wells and employs 12 air pollution inspectors.

“It’s better than nothing, but right now they’re policing themselves,” Klooster said. “Ideally it would not be the person being regulated who is inspecting themselves for violating regulations. That is not a very sound regulatory system. So either the state needs to find the money to hire a ton of inspectors or there needs to be some effort to have more third parties do these inspections to remove any bias.”

Environmental advocacy groups in Colorado have repeatedly advocated for fairer emissions reporting standards, echoing a concern that state environmental regulations will be underenforced. Some groups have proposed solutions such as using satellite images to track methane emissions. One Commerce City nonprofit gave out air quality monitors to residents to ensure an oft-polluting local oil and gas refinery is held accountable.

This lack of capacity from the state is why Klooster thinks he has seen so few consequences for polluting operators.

“In over 130 complaints we filed since we started doing this in Colorado a couple of years ago there’s only been one instance where an operator has actually been handed a violation for one of our complaints,” Klooster said.

That number is now 155 complaints, up 25 since February, with still only one violation that resulted in a fine. Klooster said that he is aware of only 34 of his complaints that have resulted in an equipment repair. In the week prior to our meeting, Klooster said he had visited 45 oil and gas sites and had filed complaints about 10 of them.

The state and the operator are required by state rules to respond to these complaints. Klooster is aware of the changes because of his communication with the state and by checking in on sites after he files the complaint. The single violation that resulted in a fine to come from these complaints was the result of repeated egregious violations by an oil and gas operator.

When the COGCC passed stricter financial assurance rules for oil and gas operators earlier this month, environmental groups worried that the rules would be difficult to enforce for the state, which might be understaffed to regulate Colorado’s huge oil and gas industry. The new rules are meant to address the state’s stripper well crisis.

About half of Colorado’s 52,000 oil and gas wells are low-producing. And 43% of operators in the state exclusively own inactive wells which leak methane and are likely to become orphaned before being plugged due to their unprofitability.

A tank on a low-producing site that’s just sitting there polluting for months on end is also a significant amount of pollution that adds up over time, even if it’s not as dramatic as what we may see coming off of a giant pad,” Klooster said. “It still adds up.”

The well site located near the playground is owned by KP Kauffman, a front-range oil and gas company. In 2020 KP Kauffman was been fined by the COGCC — although the initial fine was greatly reduced — for repeated violations of state pollution regulations.

Technically there are two wells located on the site, called Standley 1-2 and Standley 2-2, respectively. According to the COGCC database, the wells combined to produce 72 barrels of oil and 208 barrels of oil equivalent (BOE) of natural gas in 2021. This production data is self-reported by operators.

Because they produced less than one BOE per day over a year, Standley 1-2 and Standley 2-2 are classified by COGCC definitions as an uneconomic or inactive well. The wells first produced oil and gas in 2005, making the site 17 years old, and the site’s production has steadily declined every year since then.

After filming the Standley wells Klooster packed up his camera and drove about 10 minutes west, where a well he had heard about was located in the parking lot of a fire station next to a busy road about 500 feet from houses.

The well, called LW Moore GU #1, had a sign saying ‘Helena Resources’ on the site, but COGCC data says it is owned by Dallas-based Providence Energy. Like the last well, Klooster filmed the site leaking hydrocarbons.

In 2021 the well produced 193 barrels of oil and 741 BOE of natural gas, making it a low-producing well according to the COGCC because it produced 2.56 BOE per day over a calendar year. Both low-producing and inactive wells are at extremely high risk of being orphaned and becoming wards of the state.

The well first produced oil and gas in 1999, making it 23 years old. The production of the well is significantly lower than when it first started but has remained constant over the past 10 years.

The oil pump jack is near a high school’s baseball field.

The last well where Klooster filmed footage of leaking hydrocarbons is called the Adams County Golf Course because of its proximity to a golf course. It’s is also owned by KP Kauffman. This well is also directly next to Riverdale Ridge High School and is less than 100 feet away from the school’s baseball diamond.

In 2021, the well produced 255 barrels of oil and 160 BOE of natural gas making it a low-producing well as it produced 1.14 BOE per day over a year.

The well started producing oil in 1999, making it 23 years old. Oil production has remained constant at the well since its inception, but the well only started producing natural gas in 2020.

Klooster submitted pollution complaints for each of these three wells. The owners of the wells explained that each of the wells fell below the state’s pollution thresholds and that they were not purposefully venting. In a response to Klooster’s complaint that he received yesterday, the state said no violations were assessed in response to the complaints.

“As I sort of suspected, they are all below permitting thresholds — meaning the operator calculates that volatile organic compound pollution is below threshold for air permit — and therefore are allowed to have uncontrolled emissions,” Klooster explained. “In essence, this means that these sites are allowed to vent next to homes without controlling any of the pollution because of calculated (not directly measured), self-reported emission levels.”

Despite this being the standard response from the state, Klooster is still traveling the state filming these leaks. He’s hopeful that more environmental progress is made in Colorado in the future.

“If our environmental regulations were so successful at mitigating the effects of the oil and gas industry I shouldn’t be so successful at finding pollution everywhere I point my camera,” Klooster said. “There’s a lot that still needs to change.”

Correction: This story was updated to distinguish between Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division and Air Quality Control Commission.