In what has become an ongoing skirmish between environmental groups and the Police administration over how to reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emissions, a new analysis calculates that 70% of all gases come from oil and gas operations and calls for a sector shutdown by 2030.
The numbers used in the analysis by 350 Colorado are disputed by both state air quality regulators and the oil and gas industry.
“I think we should use the most protection numbers possible,” said Misha Barkin, executive director of 350 Colorado.
The number 350 is a reference to the billionth parts of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas, in the atmosphere as scientists say Earth remains a livable planet. In May 2020, the level was 417 parts per billion and rising every year.
“We really need to take quick action to avoid the worst case scenario,” Barkin said.
However, industry groups contend that the report numbers are falsified to bolster the environmental group’s declared campaign to “save fossil fuels on the Earth.”
“As a national environmental group, 350 has made it clear that it wants to ban all fossil fuels without acknowledging the safety and financial implications that it could have on Coloradoans and all Americans,” Dan Haley, president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, said in a statement.
Haley described the 350 report as a ploy “to trick regulators into banning Colorado’s energy production.”
Although not embracing a hard line like 350, other environmental groups have challenged the country’s approach to reducing greenhouse gases and questioned whether the targets – a 26% reduction from 2005 levels by 2025, 50% reduction by 2030 and 90% by 2030. 2050 – could be countered by the expansion of oil and gas operations.
In 2019, the Legislative Council and Gov. Jared Polis signed two bills that laid the foundation for a comprehensive plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the state.
Since then, environmentalists have been alarmed by what they see as a slow pace by the administration in rolling out an entire plan relying instead on a series of individual rules for each sector.
In December, the Environmental Defense Fund, which had criticized the state’s phased approach to limiting emissions for each sector, petitioned the Air Quality Monitoring Committee to instead adopt a comprehensive plan that would set legally binding limits and cut emissions for all sectors. Major sources of greenhouse gases in Colorado.
More: Colorado is falling behind its targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. How far should the state push the industry to get there?
The AQCC is designated by the Laws of 2019 as a group to develop and implement greenhouse gas reduction plans.
The state’s draft “roadmap to reduce greenhouse gas pollution” that generally outlines the types of steps that can be taken to reduce emissions by environmental groups has been criticized for its lack of detail and firm timelines.
Barkin said, “It’s a wish.” A final road map is due to be adopted this month.
In addition to EDF, two other environmental groups, the Western Resource Advocates and the Natural Resources Defense Council, have raised questions about the state’s approach to reducing greenhouse gases and voiced doubts about the feasibility of the targets.
All three made calculations about how the country was achieving its goals. To this, 350 adds his analysis focusing only on the oil and gas sector.
All of these criticisms boil down to the numbers game and there is a sharp gap in how 350 calculates its numbers.
In the state’s roadmap, transportation and coal-fired power generation are the two largest sources of greenhouse gases, accounting for about 44% of the total in 2020. Oil and gas operations were the third largest source of around 17% of all emissions.
How did 350 reach 70% for oil and gas?
First, he adopted a more robust measure of the temperature of the methane traps. Methane is more efficient than carbon dioxide at retaining heat in the atmosphere, but it is also short-lived.
Carbon dioxide can stay in the atmosphere for up to 200 years, while methane decomposes in about 10 years. So, the calculation of the heat retention versatility of a gas is a function of quantity and time.
The state uses a 100-year time frame of how to measure the potential of carbon dioxide, and concludes that methane is 28 times stronger than carbon dioxide. It uses 350 20-year time frames, boosting heat retention efficiency to 86 times carbon dioxide2.
“We need to focus on the most immediate impacts, and the heat lockdown that is happening right now, when we set policies,” Barkin said.
The use of the 100-year standard “complies with federal and international protocols for developing and reporting greenhouse gas stocks,” the Colorado Department of Public Health and the Environment said in a statement to the Colorado Sun.
The statement said that the roadmap includes a section to compare the effects of different time horizons, including 20 years, and shows lower emissions in all scenarios.
Second place where 350 boosted the impact of the oil and gas industry is in calculating the leakage rate from sector operations.
The country uses an oil and gas well leakage rate of 2.9% of its total oil and gas production. This is based on measurements taken around the Front Range oil fields.
Using studies in other oil production basins – primarily in Texas and Pennsylvania – and aerial surveys, 350 argues that the rate used should be 4.1%.
When estimates of methane emissions are made based on summarizing all of the readings on the ground, what’s called a bottom-up computation, which is what the country does, it’s almost always less than aerial or methane measurements via satellite – the so-called bottom-down measurements.
This leads some researchers to argue that something is missing from Earth’s accounts.
However, these top-to-bottom measurements don’t tell you the exact source of the methane, said Mike Bolles, associate director of API Colorado, an industry trade group.
“This is one of the reasons we are calling with CDPHE to do more bridge or satellite measurements,” said Barkin. “We need better data.”
The ministry said it “is working to establish aerial, satellite and ground tools to better assess and confirm emissions and stocks.”
Both state regulators and industry spokespeople say the use of leakage rate data from oilfields in other states does not reflect the six years of rule-making to reduce spills that occurred in Colorado.
Inspections are carried out using infrared cameras. Emissions fugitive from tanks are tightened as are emissions from valve control devices and other equipment.
Routine burning – flaring of waste gases – was banned and rules requiring emissions-free controls were put in place in February.
“We did more to reduce our footprint than any other basin,” Paul said. “Either they are not aware of what we have done or they fail to recognize it.”
However, 350 rejects the expected reduction in roadmaps in leaks to only 0.9% by 2030. “This is completely unrealistic,” said Barkin.
“We believe the roadmap is based on reasonable estimates and assessments of the data for the state of Colorado,” said CDPHE. “We also believe that the data collected as a result of the 2019 rule-setting will assist in future assessments to understand methane emissions and track progress towards our greenhouse gas reduction targets.”
The Climate Change Act requires oil and gas companies to provide a complete inventory of all greenhouse gases they emit annually to the country. The first of these reports will be released this spring. This should give everyone a better idea of the impact of the industry, Paul said.
Finally, 350 claims that all oil and natural gas shipped outside the state must also be added to the nation’s emissions regardless of where they are used. “Everything ends in the air,” Barkin said.
Not so, Paul said, as some natural gas and oil end up in fertilizers, plastics, and pharmaceuticals. “That’s a good point,” Barkin said.
Adding all of the oil and gas exported from Colorado to the state’s greenhouse gas targets will make achieving the planned reductions very difficult.
The 350 solution is to reduce the number of oil and gas wells operating in the state and the number of new permits by 10% each year over the next 10 years, although the organization does not address the financial and legal issues of such a policy.
“We are in a crisis and we need to take action and we have to phase out oil and gas in the next decade,” Barkin said.
The problem is that people won’t stop driving their cars, cooking their food, or heating their homes with natural gas, said COGA’s Haley. “Our domestic energy production is done in a safe and responsible way,” he said. “It is best to do this here, as we can ensure that the production meets the highest standards.”