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Colorado Leads U.S. In Control Of Methane Gas Emissions

May 13, 2016
Originally published on May 16, 2016 1:23 pm
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The Obama administration has announced that it will crack down on methane leaks from the oil and gas industry. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. As Grace Hood of Colorado Public Radio explains, Colorado is two years ahead on methane controls, leading the rest of the country.

GRACE HOOD, BYLINE: You would totally do a double take if you were to see Jeff Arens on the job. Ahrens works for Anadarko Petroleum and heads up a team of inspectors who look for methane leaks. And when he's on the hunt at a production facility, Arens uses a big old camera.

JEFF ARENS: Yeah, it looks like a 1980s camcorder.

HOOD: Arens looks through a black-and-white viewfinder that uses infrared technology. He says this gear doesn't come cheap.

ARENS: This is a hundred-grand right here.

HOOD: Wow. So what the heck does this thing do?

ARENS: It picks up very minute traces of gas.

HOOD: Anadarko fixes most methane leaks at the time they're identified. That's been one benefit since Colorado regulators passed an aggressive rule to curb methane from oil and gas production. It covers new and existing well sites, where the majority of methane leaks come from.

WILL ALLISON: The use of infrared cameras and other tools has increased not just our awareness but operator awareness.

HOOD: That's Will Allison. He directs Colorado's Air Pollution Control Division, which enforces the rule. Since the 2014 launch, he says the state has seen about a 75 percent decline in the number of sites that need fixing. The rule has cost oil and gas operators about $40 million.

ALLISON: Candidly, we really haven't heard concerns about the cost or any difficulty associated with implementation.

HOOD: Since 2014, a few other states have followed Colorado's lead. It all comes at a time when scientists who study methane are making an important observation - there's a lot more of it leaking from oil and gas equipment than previously thought.

GROSSMAN: We really are still at the beginning.

HOOD: Dan Grossman works for the Environmental Defense Fund and is an expert on state oil and gas programs. EDF, along universities and industry, recently completed one of the largest studies on methane.

GROSSMAN: And as we learn more about the problem and as technology advances and the cost of compliance in reducing these emissions continues to go down, I think we'll see policy revisions to reflect all of that.

HOOD: The federal government has proposed a number of rules to reduce methane. The one issue this week focuses on new and modified oil and gas sites across the country. Grossman says it's a good start, but he thinks the Colorado approach is more thorough. They're doing more frequent inspections. Leaders of the industry are skeptical of the EPA approach, however. Jack Gerard is president of the American Petroleum Institute. He spoke recently after an industry event in Denver.

JACK GERARD: We've got a unique window of opportunity, and unnecessary regulation discourages that.

HOOD: Gerard says the window is an energy renaissance where the U.S. has produced record amounts of oil and gas. But he says low oil prices are hurting oil and gas companies, and new costly regulations aren't necessary. But the experience in Colorado suggests that technology advancements will make it easier and cheaper to detect methane leaks if industry adopts them. For NPR News, I'm Grace Hood. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.