Flaring To Be Curtailed as Colorado Regulators Adopt Some of Nation’s Strictest Rules

The practice of burning off natural gas is relatively rare in Colorado, but tough rules on flaring and venting may help the state meet greenhouse gas reduction goals.

Natural gas flaring from a Williams Energy facility can be seen from Garfield County Road 215 in Colorado on 14 August 2020.
Credit: William Woody/Special to The Colorado Sun.

Flaring, the practice of burning off gas from oil and gas wells, will be limited to a handful of state-approved circumstances under the most comprehensive rules in the nation, adopted by Colorado regulators.

“We’ve done a good job for Colorado and the nation,” Jeff Robbins, the chairman of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, said after the panel’s unanimous preliminary vote on the rule during a hearing on Zoom.

When oil comes out of a well, it is mixed with natural gas, mainly methane. Operators who do not have a way to separate and use or ship the gas through pipelines burn, or flare, it off.

Alaska is the only other state with a flaring rule limiting the practice to emergencies on producing wells and requiring that the gas be either used or reinjected into the wells. The Colorado rule covers not only producing wells but also drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

“With this rule, Colorado becomes the model for other jurisdictions looking to end routine flaring as communities, investors, and leading companies demand action,” Dan Grossman, director of state advocacy for the Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement.”

Flaring, while already used rarely in Colorado, is a widespread practice in other oil-producing states, particularly in Texas and North Dakota.

In 2019, globally there was a 3% increase in gas flared to 159 billion m3, with the US leading with a 23% increase in flared gas, according to the World Bank. The top four countries for flaring in 2019 were Russia, Iran, the US, and Iraq.

Texas accounted for half of all the gas flared or vented in the US in 2019, according to the US Department of Energy. Nearly 20% of all the gas produced in North Dakota was flared.

In Colorado, less than 1% of the natural gas produced in the top oil and gas counties was flared in 2019 as operators, particularly on the Front Range, have access to gathering systems and pipelines.

“There was no evidence presented that demonstrates a need for new venting and flaring rules, because it’s incredibly rare in Colorado,” Dan Haley, CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, a trade group, said in a statement.

Still, the state’s biggest producers—including Occidental Petroleum, Noble Energy, and PDC Energy—as well as the Small Operators Society, representing operators with just a handful of wells, supported the rule.

“There has been a lot of collaboration and conversation,” with commission staff and other stakeholders, Carrie Hackenberger, associate director of API-Colorado, an industry trade group, said. “It has been a fairly good process.”

The action also drew praise from environmental groups. “It is a great step to ban this needless and useless flaring,” said Kelly Nordini, executive director of Conservation Colorado.

It will also help the state meet its goals of reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. “It is a potent climate pollutant,” Nordini said, “and we are not on track to meet our climate targets.”

The new rules ban routine flaring or venting, the release of the raw gas. They permit flaring when conditions at the well are disrupted, during emergencies, and with written permission during maintenance, production evaluation, or as part of an approved gas-capture plan.

Other times flaring would be permitted include when it is necessary to complete a well or when an operator can show it will minimize adverse effects to public health, safety, welfare, the environment or wildlife resources.

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