Colorado pauses process to set rules for reducing 'cumulative impacts' from oil, gas operations

“We understand where this pollution is coming from, and Colorado has the tools to regulate it. We just need to choose to exercise that power,” says environmental lawyer
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Posted at 11:02 AM, Apr 23, 2024
and last updated 2024-04-23 13:12:20-04

DENVER — By the end of April, Colorado’s top regulatory agency for the oil and gas industry was expected to finish up a yearslong process meant to define how the state can consider “cumulative impacts” when approving new oil and gas development. But that process is paused for now.

Colorado lawmakers first tasked the Energy and Carbon Management Commission (ECMC) with making rules to evaluate and address cumulative impacts in 2019 – as part of the agency’s broad mission change from fostering the oil and gas industry to regulating it.

The intention is to better protect Coloradans’ health and the environment by looking at the bigger picture of existing pollution before allowing more oil and gas operations. But the complexity of creating new rules around cumulative impacts, while still enabling the oil and gas industry to operate, has led the commission to “kick the can down the road,” said Andrew Forkes-Gudmundson, a lawyer with the environmental group Earthworks.

“We're trying to be a state that can have clean air, a vibrant economy, oil and gas, recreation and everything. And that's a really hard balance to hold on to,” he said.


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For almost five years, the commission has been looking into cumulative impacts and how to better regulate the oil and gas industry to mitigate those impacts. The commission released a draft of proposed rules in January that defined cumulative impacts as encompassing “impacts on air quality, water quality, the climate, noise, odor, wildlife, and biological resources.” The proposed rules would update the permitting process, increase coordination with state air pollution regulators and require oil and gas operators to engage more with the public about their drilling plans, among other changes.

“The state doesn't want to just say no. So, we have to find a process that looks at the big picture, takes a comprehensive view of the pollution problem, and says no to the things that have to be said no to,” Forkes-Gudmundson said.

Last year, Colorado lawmakers set a deadline for the commission to finalize its new rules: April 29, 2024. But now, the process has come to a halt.

Some legislators introduced a bill aimed at further expanding the commission’s power over carbon management beyond oil and gas, including technology known as a “direct air capture facility” meant to capture carbon dioxide from the air and trap it underground. The bill, HB24-1346, also redefines “cumulative impacts” by requiring the commission to "minimize adverse impacts [from all energy and carbon management operations] to protect public health, safety, and welfare; the environment; and wildlife resources.”

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Given these potential changes to the law, the ECMC decided to pause its rulemaking process. ECMC Commissioner Jeff Robins said in a recent hearing there is consensus among stakeholders in the process – who include industry representatives and environmental groups – that it “makes sense to pause… while we give the legislature an opportunity to tell us what it is we should be doing.”

This isn’t the first time the commission has delayed its attempts to figure out rules for cumulative impacts. In recent years, the ECMC has gathered hundreds of public comments on cumulative impacts. In the meantime, Forkes-Gudmundson said Colorado has “been approving a lot of oil and gas facilities.”

Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, which represents the industry, told Denver7 that lawmakers’ newly introduced bill “disrupts the extensive stakeholder engagement and preparatory work that has been happening for months.”

Haley said by changing the definition of cumulative impacts, and adding in carbon capture and storage technologies, lawmakers are making it more difficult to use those technologies.

“Our shared objective should be crafting policies that enable the critical carbon management solutions needed to meet Colorado’s greenhouse gas targets,” Haley said. “We remain committed to working constructively with policymakers and all stakeholders to find the right balance and approach.”

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Still, environmental advocates like Forkes-Gudmundson, believe the state should consider all factors when looking at cumulative impacts.

“Nothing in this world happens in a bubble. It's all a part of the sort of broader context,” he said. For example, in Commerce City and north Denver – one of the most polluted zip codes in the United States – multiple polluters contribute to the bad air quality: The Suncor Oil and Gas Refinery, highways cutting through neighborhoods and myriad factories release emissions.

If the ECMC considers cumulative impacts in a neighborhood like that, approving new oil and gas operations nearby wouldn’t make sense, Forkes-Gudmundson said.

“These are real issues that affects a large number of Coloradans from every socioeconomic background, and we can actually do something about it,” he said. “We understand where this pollution is coming from, and Colorado has the tools to regulate it. We just need to choose to exercise that power.”

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