Going underground
COGCC could get a new name reflecting shift to more geothermal energy

Going underground

Oil pump jacks and related infrastructure exist in close proximity to homes and epic scenery in Weld County, Colorado. Oct. 25, 2019.

Sam Brasch / Colorado Public Radio - 04/20/2023

Colorado’s top oil and gas regulators could be getting a new name and a broader scope of work.  Since its creation in 1951, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has approved thousands of drilling projects across the state. That role has put the governor-appointed panel at the center of countless conflicts related to climate change and impacts of fossil fuel extraction. 

Now, a bill introduced by Democratic lawmakers would give a new title to the nine-member committee: the Energy and Carbon Management Commission. 

The name change is more than cosmetic. It signals an attempt to bring the commission – and the industry it regulates – into the state’s larger efforts to combat climate change and provide new options for energy storage.

If the legislation wins approval, the panel would gain new authority over projects to drill for geothermal heat. It would also oversee any company planning to store natural gas underground and study the potential for similar hydrogen storage projects. 

State Sen. Chris Hansen, a Denver Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill, said the shift provides clarity for oil and gas companies. Instead of exacerbating the climate crisis, their techniques could assist in reducing emissions.

“That is certainly a possibility for some oil and gas firms. And we have a clear indication that some of those companies want to diversify operations,” Hansen said.

Geothermal energy has gained the attention of the oil and gas industry in the last few years, which sees it as a way to shift to a far less carbon-intensive form of energy.

A report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory suggests underground heat is a vastly underutilized resource. Most current projects are undertaken at rare places where geothermal energy rises close to the earth’s surface. New technologies could allow for deeper drilling, opening up the possibility of generating zero-carbon electricity and providing steady, on-demand electricity.

Proponents say it offers an ideal complement for less consistent sources of renewable energy like wind and solar. A geothermal plant also takes up far less space.

The technology can also be used in shallower pools to heat and cool buildings. Under the current version of the legislation, the new ECMC would only manage projects that require drilling beyond 2,500 feet below the surface. 

One of the leading boosters of geothermal energy is Gov. Jared Polis. Earlier this year, he launched the “Heat Beneath Our Feet” initiative, which seeks to study opportunities for geothermal across the western U.S. 

The oil and gas industry supports parts of the plan, but some environmental groups don’t want the state to throw companies a lifeline. 

Dan Haley, the president of the industry group Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said his group hasn’t taken an official position on the bill yet. He said it was disappointing the legislation didn’t address carbon capture, utilization and storage. The technology describes the process to collect carbon from industrial sources like coal-fired power plants and inject it underground. 

Some environmental groups are far less enthusiastic. Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, said the legislation is part of a broad effort to help oil and gas companies remain relevant. He’d rather see the state focus on cheaper technologies like wind and solar.

“We don’t need to be managing carbon,” Nichols said. “We have the means to stop carbon from being emitted in the first place.”

The bill got its first public hearing before the Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee Wednesday.

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