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New study by University of Colorado says state has underestimated oil, gas emissions

A new study that says the state has likely underestimated the emissions generated by the oil and gas industry along Colorado’s Front Range, perhaps by a factor as high as two, has prompted legislation that would beef up efforts to protect the state’s air quality.

A peer-reviewed study by University of Colorado-Boulder researcher Detlev Helmig raises questions about the way the state estimates the levels of oil and gas emissions contributing to the area’s high ozone pollution.

A nine-county area from the Denver metro area to the north has been out of compliance with federal air quality standards for years. In December, the Environmental Protection Agency downgraded the area from being a “moderate” violator to a “serious” violator.

The numerous complaints from people living near oil and gas sites have included reports of respiratory problems and concerns about air quality.

Emissions from oil and gas operations and vehicles are major sources of substances called volatile organic compounds and of nitrogen oxides, which form ground-level ozone, or smog. A December 2018 letter in which the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sought a one-year extension to comply with federal standards refers to “a dramatic decline in ambient levels of oil and gas related” volatile organic compounds as a result of tougher regulations and new practices by the industry.

Helmig said nothing in the 50 studies he evaluated for his paper supports that conclusion.

“I haven’t seen a single peer-reviewed study that demonstrates that. The peer-reviewed literature very strongly points to a very significant contribution of oil and gas emissions to elevated ozone conditions in the state,” said Helmig, an associate researcher at CU’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

Gov. Jared Polis withdrew the request for the extension sought by former Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration. Helmig said he was surprised that the state didn’t tap the “substantial body of literature” on air quality on the Front Range when writing the letter.

“I was surprised and impressed that I was able to find on the order of 50 published studies, many of them representing work and authors by some of the leading scientists, not just in the state or nation but in the world,” Helmig said.

The data generally show no change in emissions and perhaps even a slight increase, Helmig said.

A 2012 study co-authored by Gabrielle Pétron, with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at CU, said emissions associated with oil and gas had likely been underestimated in state and national inventories by “as high as a factor of two.”

Other authors of the studies reviewed by Helmig include scientists from National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, CU, Colorado State University and several other universities.

Industry representatives say the state’s data show that stronger regulations, including the first-in-the-country methane rules, have driven down oil and gas emissions while production has skyrocketed along the northern Front Range. Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, contended that Helmig “cherry picks points from articles and studies without accurately representing conclusions.”

Lynn Granger, executive director of American Petroleum Institute-Colorado, said her organization disagrees that the science indicates anything but a decline in emissions in recent years.

“What we know is that as production has increased fourfold in Colorado, related emissions have dropped to 25-year lows,” Granger said in an email.

State health and environmental officials said some of the studies Helmig reviewed are a few years old and state regulations and technology have changed since then.

“I think if you look closely (Helmig’s) saying we don’t have enough information to draw really definitive conclusions as to what the trajectory of the emissions are,” said Garry Kaufman, director of the state air pollution control division.

However, Kaufman said the state’s inventory of oil and gas emissions, using the protocols and methods laid out by the EPA, likely do underestimate the levels. On the other hand, the methods used in some of the scientific research, which include aerial surveys, might overstate the levels, he said.

A recommendation in Helmig’s study, published Feb. 10 in the journal Elementa: Science of the Anthropocene, is that the state should more closely collaborate with federal and university researchers to gather the necessary data. A bill being written by state Senate Majority Leader Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, would provide money for research and more equipment to expand air-quality monitoring.

The bill, which Fenberg plans to introduce soon, grew from discussions with scientists, including Helmig, and the health department. Fenberg said after a state health study in 2019 showed that people living within 2,000 feet of well sites could face short-term health impacts, he wanted to do a more comprehensive health study.

“But I realized the answer is probably not just doing a study. The answer is probably more about ensuring our health department has the ongoing capacity to do those types of studies and monitoring and basic science and data collection,” Fenberg said.

The health department and the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission stepped up air monitoring in the northern Front Range in response to concerns raised by the health study.

Fenberg’s bill would raise money by removing the caps on fees for permits required for oil and gas sites and other operations that emit pollution. The Air Quality Control Commission would set the fees but would still need legislative authority to spend the money.

The legislation also proposes a separate, fee-funded board that would include outside scientists and would make decisions about research and projects.

Kaufman and John Putnam, the director of environmental programs at the health department, welcomed Fenberg’s legislation as a way to provide the resources needed to get a more complete picture of emission levels and the potential impacts on public health and the environment.

Polis’ proposed budget includes about 25 new positions for the health department, most of which would be in the air pollution control division.

Helmig’s study contrasts methods used by researchers to measure oil and gas emissions. Their “top-down” approaches use aerial surveys as well as mobile and stationary monitoring devices. The state, following EPA models, takes a “bottom-up” approach, Helmig said, which relies on estimates of emissions from wells and other equipment and multiplying that by the number of sites.

“The problem with that is you don’t really know how representative those facilities are. You don’t know if you’re capturing all the different stages of production,’ Helmig said.

If Fenberg’s bill is approved, the state could use the additional money to reconcile the differences in the various estimates and fill gaps in the data, Putnam said. The challenge of estimating  oil and gas emissions is that there are thousands of points where emissions can escape, he said.

“The fact that those emission factors in a bottom-up sort of way are imperfect is not surprising,” Putnam said. “But we need those bottom-up kind of approaches to meet our federal requirements that have to do with ozone control and ozone modeling.”


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