Last month, environmental activist and certified gas imaging thermographer Andrew Klooster released a report on his work in 2022 filming hydrocarbon emissions at oil and gas facilities. More than 95% of the potential issues of improper emissions reported to state air quality regulators led not to an onsite investigation by the state but only to an inspection by the owners of these facilities.

Read the report here.

Klooster works for Earthworks, a national environmental advocacy organization, to publicize evidence of potentially illegal pollution occurring at oil and gas well sites, compressor stations, storage facilities, waste disposal facilities, and gas plants. There are many steps involved in producing oil and gas, and at every step, the Air Pollution Control Division (APCD), Colorado’s air pollution regulatory agency, wants to limit pollutants released into the atmosphere.

Klooster travels Colorado and films oil and gas facilities that could be emitting harmful pollutants — in response to tips he occasionally gets from oil and gas well-adjacent residents who report a funny smell outside their homes — then submits his video evidence to the APCD.

Current state law states that the APCD cannot act based on evidence submitted by third parties like Klooster. All they can do is ask the operators themselves to investigate the emissions or send their own investigator before they can impose an order or a fine. There are over 50,000 oil and gas wells all over Colorado.

State lawmakers are set to introduce a bill later this month that would allow the APCD, as well as the state’s oil and gas regulatory agency the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, to include evidence from third parties when investigating a potential violation. The bill is a wide-ranging air quality measure aimed at addressing ozone issues in Colorado but has yet to be introduced.

An oil derrick in Thornton.

In 2022, Klooster conducted 553 surveys with an optical gas imaging camera at 383 oil and gas facilities. Klooster submitted 135 of these surveys to the APCD because his findings showed potential pollution.

Only six of these 135 events resulted in an APCD on-site investigation. The rest were inspected by the operators of the site, according to the operators themselves. Thirty-seven of the 135 (27%) resulted in repair or maintenance to address these emissions. Again, that number is self-reported by the operators.

Klooster is skeptical of these numbers because he has followed up on his complaints to APCD and found that the potentially harmful emissions were still present even months after his evidence was submitted and the APCD and the operators were notified. In some cases, operators said they had fixed the issues causing the pollution, but emissions were still present.

At the bottom of Klooster’s report, he includes videos from several sites where the emissions were still not resolved five or six months after his complaints.

Klooster pointed out that under Colorado permitting laws some oil and gas facilities are allowed to have emissions on their site as long as it is under a certain threshold. The APCD also does not count emissions that happen during startup, shutdown, or malfunction periods on a site when checking for air quality violations.

Klooster explained that roughly 60% of the observations he made of emissions from tanks were attributed to upset conditions or maintenance activities, or were permitted instances of venting and uncontrolled tank emissions due to permitting thresholds. So in many of those cases, operators did not conduct inspections. This is also something that lawmakers and environmental groups are trying to change.

“So, what do our 2022 field surveys demonstrate?” Klooster concludes in his report. “That Colorado has a long way to go to match talk with reality. We may have some of the strongest regulations for oil and gas in the nation. We may have regulatory agencies that are committed to reducing the worst impacts of oil and gas pollution on public health and the environment. However, in Colorado, oil and gas operators are still trusted to police themselves for violations. The results speak for themselves.”

In an interview with the Colorado Times Recorder Klooster wanted to emphasize that he understands the difficult task the APCD has been handed when it comes to monitoring compliance at these oil and gas sites across the state. His goal with the videos is to emphasize how much further the state needs to go when it comes to environmental and public health.

“I’m not implying that the APCD ignore my observations, but they don’t fully inspect the sites where I make them, at least not to the standard that I and a lot of other community members would like to see,” Klooster said.

Kate Malloy, a spokesperson for the Air Pollution Control Division, wanted to emphasize that the APCD does conduct many on-site visits to ensure operators are complying with air quality standards. Malloy explained that the Division takes community complaints seriously.

“We investigate all complaints we receive, which includes an assessment of whether there was a violation of a regulation or other standard,” Malloy told the Colorado Times Recorder. “While not all emissions are violations and some emissions are expected during normal oil and gas operations, we are committed to using appropriate actions to protect public health and safety. Some complaints do not represent violations. Others do. If we identify a violation during our complaint investigation, we work with the company to resolve it.”

Malloy said the APCD is appreciative of the work of community members and environmental groups who take air quality violations seriously, but pointed out there are some limitations to what people like Klooster can investigate on these oil and gas sites. For example, says Mallowy, members of the public are not allowed to actually go into these sites, so they have to be monitored from a distance, and optical gas imaging cameras pick up heat, not just emissions.

These are both issues Klooster agrees limit him in his independent investigating, which is why he thinks it is so important that the APCD conduct their own on-site investigations.

“We value all data and information we receive about a site,” Malloy said. “If we receive a video as part of a complaint from a third-party source, it can serve as a launching point for our own investigation. If we find a potential violation, we would provide our own evidence. We appreciate organizations doing similar work, and we consider it as one piece in part of a broader story. While infrared cameras are an important, helpful technology, it’s important to note that infrared cameras are susceptible to heat as well as emissions, are not able to identify the type of compound emitted, and cannot determine the amount of a compound emitted. 

Our trained inspectors are able to go on-site, as appropriate, and get more detailed information. For many reasons, including safety, the public typically can’t go on site.”

Fossil fuel production releases large amounts of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. Earlier this year, state regulators found that fracking and drilling alone produce more emissions than every front-range vehicle combined.

Oil and gas wells — even those considered low-producing — contribute heavily to methane emissions in the U.S. A study by the journal Nature Communications found that low-producing wells are responsible for half of the methane emissions from all well sites in the U.S. despite accounting for only 6% of the nation’s oil and gas production. Oil and gas wells tend to leak more of these harmful emissions as they age — a big problem in Colorado.

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.

Colorado lawmakers and environmental groups are clamoring for stricter air quality standards, including one potential bill that would require the state to only approve drilling projects that won’t exacerbate local air pollution problems.