Science Notes

Colorado Passed the Nations First Regulations on Pneumatic Controllers

By Presley Church

March 2021

The Issue

We all know and love Colorado’s natural beauty: the mountains, the sunsets, the fresh air…  But those sunsets aren’t as natural as we might hope, and the air isn’t as fresh as we might think. Colorado has an ozone and air quality problem. 

Photo: Dennis Schroeder/NREL

As manufacturing, energy, agriculture, and mining activities dominate the state’s economy, it’s going to take a multifaceted approach to fix Colorado’s air quality issues. In February 2021, steps were taken by the Air Quality Control Commission (AQCC) to better regulate emissions at natural gas and oil sites statewide. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, there were around 40,000 active oil and natural gas wells in Colorado in May 2018, and there are now 60,000 active wells, according to Colorado Rising. 

Natural gas and oil wells require pneumatic controllers to the tune of 100,000 devices across the state. Pneumatic controllers (running on natural gas) regulate temperature, pressure, and other functions by opening and closing valves, causing methane to leak in the process. “The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that these devices emit nearly 2 million tons of methane a year into the air nationwide,” said Clean Air Task Force senior scientist David McCabe; they “account for 29% of the oil industry air emissions” nationally. Emissions from pneumatic controllers are the second largest contributor to Colorado’s methane emissions from the oil and gas industry, according to the Environmental Defense Fund.

The Response

On February 18, 2021, the AQCC voted unanimously to pass the nation’s first rules regulating pneumatic controllers. According to these new rules, all new and modified wells must only use non-emitting controllers, and current pneumatic controllers must be retrofitted to meet the new standards. Oil and gas companies throughout the state are given some flexibility regarding how to enact these changes, so long as their plan is in line with Colorado’s goals and AQCC rules. 

Given Colorado’s significant blend of Democratic and Republican districts, clashes between oil and gas production advocates and environmental groups, and the diversity of the economic sector – the unanimous passage of these regulations is astounding. The rules resulted from compromises between groups such as the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, Environmental Defense Fund, Clean Air Task Force, League of Oil and Gas Impacted Coloradans, and a variety of local governments (including Boulder County Public Health). As Jeremy Marray of the Air Pollution Control Division put it, “Compromise and collaboration are the Colorado way.”


These new rules were established in an attempt to meet the greenhouse gas emission reduction goals outlined in House Bill 1261 (passed in 2019). Section I of the act calls for the state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 26% by 2025, 50% by 2030, and 90% by 2050, compared to Colorado’s 2005 emissions levels. The new AQCC rules aim to decrease methane emissions, which represent 10% of national greenhouse gas emissions (3.1% coming from the oil and gas industry), according to the Environmental Protection Agency. By May 1, 2023, the majority of the state’s controllers will be non-emitting.

The Bottom Line

Colorado is leading the charge with this first-of-its-kind pneumatic controller regulation. Other states will be watching to see how the rules are enacted and whether they efficiently help meet Colorado’s greenhouse gas emission reduction goals for the coming decades. The success of collaboration and compromise is overwhelming in this scenario, demonstrating that when scientists, governmental agencies, policy-makers, businesses, and constituents come together, action results.


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