Greenhouse gas intensity targets: the new greenwashing?

In a recent article in the Colorado Sun (A new rule to slash oil and gas emissions.., Sept 15, 2021), a new rule adopted by the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) is described by the Polis administration as a way to dramatically cut the GHG emissions by the oil & gas industry.

The rule is based on something that is interestingly called “intensity targets”, which apparently simply means making an effort to reduce your GHG emissions, and then reporting how much GHG your company emits…and hopefully it goes down over time. There are reduction targets for 2025, 2030 and 2050, which have been announced for all the various kinds of O&G activities, from fracking to drilling to transport.

The calculation of the emissions by the companies has been developed by the AQCC, and are intended to be an incentive-based, rather than command-and-control-based, kind of regulation. In other words, the regulator does not specifically instruct the polluter how they are doing to reduce their pollution by using a specific technology; but rather suggests a reduction target, and leaves it up the polluter to reduce their pollution by any means they want.

The proposal has, unsurprisingly, been welcomed by the O&G industry. The industry has always preferred to be self-regulating, which was largely the approach taken by the Colorado legislature in the past, up until the passage of SB-181 in April 2019. That historic legislation, which took away the industry’s ability to self-regulate by specifically instructing the COGCC to stop allowing it, was a watershed in the state approach to regulating the O&G industry.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise, at least to this writer, why the AQCC wants to reverse course, and restore self-regulation to the industry that is primarily complicit in causing global climate change. The proposed rules carry no penalties if a company fails to meet its target, and there are no enforceable measures in the new rule. The big assumption is that each individual O&G operator will do their level best to meet their “intensity target”, i.e. a lower level of GHG emissions.

Gee, what could possibly go wrong?

Also unsurprisingly, the environmental community (i.e. Wildearth Guardians, the EDF, at this point) has denounced the new rule as a mistake which will one day have to be corrected. They make the undeniable point that climate change is happening now, and we no longer have the time to try out untested regulatory policies that could take years to evaluate.

The one benefit of the program, from what I can tell, is that it is the first time that a regulation is taking a wholistic approach, and forcing O&G operators to consider their entire operation, from start to finish, to see where best they can best reduce their emissions to meet their reduction targets. The “intensity” aspect of the regulation comes from the required overall calculation of total CO2-equivalent produced per unit of product processed. (The units used will vary by type of company and what it is producing or processing.) As some O&G operations can involved a complex series of operations, the calculation of their overall “GHG intensity” will be a complex process in itself.

However, if history is any guide, the lack of specific enforceable actions, and especially the lack of any penalty for not meeting their targets, does not auger glad tidings for the outcome of this rule. As the saying goes, the road to hell is littered with good intentions — and while this rule may have the best of intentions, I’m afraid it will just be allowing the fossil fuel companies off the hook, once again, and pushing us all closer to a hellish world where the climate veers more and more out of any sort of equilibrium, creating more and more misery with each passing year.

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