Commission sets timeline for review of key permitting documents

Oil pumpjack against snowy mountains in Colorado.

Colorado air-quality regulators and oil-and-gas leaders agreed on a timeline to keep the growing number of environmental-justice summary reviews on track, though the new rules may not move the process as quickly as some in the industry had hoped.

Members of the Colorado Air Quality Control Commission agreed on Thursday to limit departmental review of the reports to two weeks, with another two weeks allowed if the Air Pollution Control Division is dealing with an unexpected number of summaries at once. The division may notify applicants that their application is incomplete and demand extra information, but if APCD officials fail to timely notify an applicant within 14 days that the material is incomplete, APCD must process the permit.

The rulemaking hearing Thursday represented one of the major current flashpoints between business leaders and the state — compliance with an increasing number of air-quality rules and the need to ensure timely permitting with those new rules. In this case, the AQCC amended a year-old rule that increased permitting requirements for oil-and-gas firms operating in disproportionately impacted communities — but did so in a way that keeps both the APCD and companies accountable.

In particular, APCD officials re-examined the environmental-justice summaries that companies must submit when seeking air-quality permits for construction or expanded operations that could increase emissions. Those summaries include descriptions of companies and projects involved, plus a report on the project’s impact on surrounding communities that is generated when applicants plug information into a division-made tool.

How the environmental-justice rules are changing

APCD proposed reducing some regulations around the summaries, exempting the need for them if the projects won’t add emissions or if the applicant has created a summary for construction or operations permits and needs a duplicate summary for the other permit. It also proposed adding some requirements, such as greater documentation and description of community engagement on the application as well as the addition of a map showing everything within a one-mile radius of the project.

However, the biggest debate around the Regulation 3 amendments involved the amount of time that the APCD should have to consider the environmental justice summaries.

Division leaders typically have been verifying the summaries now in three to five days — a turnaround that Jeremy Schuster of APCD’s regulatory department called extremely quick. But with two employees in the department getting 30 environmental justice summaries each week and working on 50 to 80 at any time, APCD leaders said they wanted to respond to requests from the oil-and-gas sector to establish reasonable timelines for review.

Disagreement over the proper timeline

APCD originally proposed a 45-day review timeline but offered a new proposal Thursday that knocked that down to 20 business days. Industry leaders countered that 10 calendar days is a reasonable time, given how quickly staffers are signing off on summaries created partially by entering information into a department tool, reducing much of the examination needed for permit requests.

Jennifer Biever, an attorney representing the American Petroleum Institute Colorado at Thursday’s hearing, said she was concerned that if state officials get too permissive a timeline for approvals, they could deprioritize the work so that it fits into that longer period.

“Our history shows that if you give the division more time, they will take it,” Biever said. “The more time that’s given, it may actually start increasing the time for these reviews.”

Chris Colclasure, a shareholder at Beatty and Wozniak P.C. representing the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, noted that the average consideration time for construction permits at APCD reached 642 days — more than a year-and-a-half — in 2023.

Origin of the environmental-justice rule and timeline

But Schuster and Jessica Ferko of APCD’s policy and planning program said that as more companies submit reviews for the nine-month-old program, the reviews could begin to pile up and weigh on a limited staff that also supports environmental-justice outreach efforts. Given the likelihood that employees could be on vacation at some point and the fact that 15% of the reviews require follow-up queries because of a lack of needed information, employees must have the flexibility to consider each submission properly, they said.

“It takes a lot of time from these teams to follow up and follow up,” Schuster said.

AQCC members chose a compromise plan — allowing the division to consider the reviews for 14 days and then extending that timeline by another 14 days if an unexpected number of environmental-justice reviews need examination. They approved the rule unanimously.

The regulation sprang from a 2021 law, the Environmental Justice Act, that required tougher rules for emissions-generating activity in disproportionately impacted communities that suffer from high pollution or that have low-income or high-minority populations. First-of-their-kind regulations approved in May 2023 by the AQCC require enhanced modeling and monitoring of emissions, mandate submission of environmental-justice summaries and give affected communities more of a voice in the permitting process.

However, environmental advocates GreenLatinos, Earthworks and 350 Colorado sued the state in August, alleging that the approved regulations were not as stringent as the Environmental Justice Act required them to be — a legal action that remains active. They also backed a bill this session that would have overturned some rulemaking concessions — such as a provision limiting the toughest regulations for “cumulatively impacted communities” that feature high poverty, pollution and housing burden — but that bill died on the calendar in the face of opposition from Gov. Jared Polis’ administration.