Environmental activists are closely watching a rulemaking process by Colorado’s Air Pollution Control Division (APCD) that could change how greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas production are measured. This process, known as the greenhouse gas intensity verification rule development, is part of the larger-scale plan proposed by Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO) to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050.

“This rulemaking defines how operators calculate their greenhouse gas intensity, monitor operations to ensure compliance, and account for all emissions from their operations,” explains the APCD website, where a draft of the proposed rules can be found.

In 2021, Colorado air quality regulators passed a series of rules intended to decrease methane and other greenhouse gas emissions from oil and gas production. These rules represented a landmark step for states looking to combat greenhouse gas emissions and a win for Polis — who campaigned in 2018 on a platform of leading Colorado toward a 100% renewable energy economy by 2040.

Despite these groundbreaking rules, environmental advocates at the time raised concerns that the greenhouse gas reduction targets for oil and gas companies would be difficult to enforce due to the sheer number of wells in Colorado (Among U.S. states, Colorado produced the fifth-most oil and the eighth-most natural gas in 2022.) and measurement methods that tend to underestimate the amount of methane emitted or are conducted by the oil and gas companies themselves.

Environmental activists in Colorado are calling for the APCD to require direct measurement of emissions from oil and gas activities using the latest emissions tracking technology.

Nini Gu, the Environmental Defense Fund’s regulatory and legislative manager for the western U.S., wrote a blog post last week titled “Trust, but verify: How Colorado must lead as latest methane rulemaking advances,” where Gu argued for the necessity of using this latest technology.

“The Polis administration can lead the nation and the world on this issue, but only by properly incorporating direct measurement into the GHG Intensity Verification Rule,” Gu said. “Colorado was the first state in the nation to establish methane rules and set a bold example for the entire world, but it’s far easier to take a crown than to keep it. The Polis administration will soon show us if it has what it takes to maintain that leadership.”

Last year, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act, which included $1.55 billion to support methane pollution monitoring and innovation surrounding oil and gas operations. Gu said Colorado has an opportunity to use this federal funding in support of its potential emissions tracking efforts.

Rumela Roy, a senior associate attorney with Earthjustice’s Rocky Mountain Office, said the APCD needs to measure these emissions directly from the source, rather than using formulas based on assumptions and data that are outdated or unrealistic.

“Colorado is planning to rely on the intensity program to meet its 2030 oil and gas emission reduction goals,” Roy said. “But there’s no way to know that this program is working — or that companies are complying with the requirements — unless the state accurately measures emissions from oil and gas sites. That’s why the state needs to require oil and gas companies to directly measure actual methane emissions from each and every site, each and every year. Only then can the intensity program amount to more than just a paperwork exercise.”

Producing and burning fossil fuels for energy regularly ranks among the worst offenders when it comes to ozone-causing emissions nationwide and in Colorado.

Andrew Klooster, a Colorado field advocate and certified thermographer for Earthworks, a national environmental group that does advocacy work in Colorado, is also paying attention to the rulemaking process and agrees that the APCD needs to include direct emissions measurement in its final ruling.

“We respect that much of what the division is trying to accomplish here is breaking new ground,” Klooster said. “It is vitally important that we get this verification process right, not just for the intensity program itself, but to ensure we are making progress in reducing the burden of co-pollutants that are harmful to human health on disproportionately impacted communities and other communities throughout the state. For this reason, the verification process should prioritize wherever possible and whenever possible direct, site-specific, and even source-specific measurement of emissions.”

Klooster films emissions from oil and gas projects around the state in an attempt to hold oil and gas companies — who sometimes take advantage of the difficulties the state of Colorado has in enforcing all of these environmental and public health regulations — accountable. Klooster reported that in 2022 he notified the APCD of 135 separate incidences of capturing leaking emissions from oil and gas sites; only six of these 135 incidences were looked into by APCD staff. He also found that even if the operators said they fixed the problem, there were incidences of repeat offenders who were still leaking methane into the air.

“Over the last year there have been numerous occasions where I have documented significant emissions with our Optical Gas Imaging camera from venting tanks on sites that have had fence line air quality monitors deployed by operators,” Klooster said. “In many of those instances, the monitors have failed to detect the emissions events that I filmed. Getting this right is important for the climate and for Colorado communities who have suffered for too long from oil and gas pollution that has never truly been quantified.”

Heidi Leathwood, climate policy analyst for 350 Colorado, an environmental advocacy group took issue with the current proposal for APCD to measure emissions. The “methane intensity” method was proposed by the APCD  to measure emissions. Intensity is the ratio of methane emissions emitted compared to the oil or natural gas produced.

“Our success in achieving the statewide greenhouse gas reductions required by law absolutely depends on achieving the 60% reduction in the oil and gas sector,” Leathwood said. “Unfortunately, we are stuck with trying to reduce the intensity of emissions instead of reducing absolute emissions, since the AQCC already passed the earlier oil and gas rules containing the intensity program. It seems like madness to try to reduce emissions only by reducing the ratio of emissions to production when there is one variable that is unknown and uncontrolled — that is, the number of new wells and the total amount of production. So far there have been over 4,500 permits to drill granted since HB19-1261 passed into law, and production is expected to keep increasing — we don’t know by how much.”

Leathwood is referring to the Polis “greenhouse gas reduction roadmap” allowing for an increase of approved oil and gas wells in Colorado

“But as long as we are stuck with the intensity program, it is critical that the reported emissions are accurate, and that is what this rule is setting out to do,” Leathwood said. “It is looking like an uphill battle to ensure the reporting contains enough actual measurement. In the recent draft, the rule gives too much latitude to the judgment of the operators. … Although it makes sense that the guidance document will be able to adjust quickly as technology develops, we urge the Division to put as much as possible into the rule, to write far more specificity in the guidance document, and make sure all reporting, even to external verification programs, will be transparent and accessible to the public.”

The APCD just concluded the public comment period and will now hold meetings on the rulemaking over the next three months. Keep up to date on these meetings here.