Wyoming regulators imposed strict air quality standards on natural gas operations in the Pinedale area this month, in an effort to curb high ozone levels that have bedeviled the region for years.
The new standards represent part of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s wider effort to bring the largely rural Upper Green River Basin into compliance with federal air quality standards. The region witnessed ozone levels that exceeded federal health standards for three years between 2008 and 2011, prompting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to designate Sublette County and parts of Lincoln and Sweetwater counties as a nonattainment zone in 2012.
Natural gas operators in the region are required to use the best available technology to find and fix equipment leaking harmful emissions, under the guidelines issued by the DEQ in September. The measures went into effect on Nov. 1. They also establish a new management area with more stringent pollution controls and call for increased inspections of gas operations.
Environmentalists and energy industry representatives largely welcomed the move, if for different reasons. Operators in the region said they have already moved to curb emissions and will not be greatly affected by the standards.
“From our perspective, we, as well as other operators and stakeholders have been working on many ways to reduce emissions. These new regulations will further help that cause without question,” said Paul Ulrich, who is leading Encana Corp.’s effort to develop 3,500 wells in the Normally Pressured Lance formation south of Pinedale. “A measured regulatory approach to continued emission reduction is a positive thing. And we believe this is a positive step in the right direction.”
Carolyn Tucker, a Shell spokeswoman, struck a similar tone. The company has voluntarily reduced volatile organic compound emissions by 47 percent and nitric oxide emissions by 93 percent since 2007, she said.
“Shell actively participated in the Upper Green River Basin Task Force and we support the plan DEQ has outlined,” Tucker said.
The standards are a “good step forward” said Bruce Pendery, Wyoming Outdoor Council’s chief legal counsel. The final DEQ guidelines go beyond what the department initially proposed, he said. Initially the department proposed AOV, or audio, olfactory and visual, inspections of leaking facilities. Now they are required to use the best technology available to control emissions. The standards were also expanded to regulations on hazardous air pollutants.
“These should help bring emissions down. The new requirements are notably stronger than the previous requirements,” Pendery said. “But it is almost as certain that to get this area into compliance that they are going to have to do more. And they are planning on it.”
Pendery noted that the new regulations only apply to new and modified equipment. Older facilities are effectively grandfathered under the new standards, he said.
Pollution levels have long been a contentious subject in the basin. The region witnessed significant gas development over the past two decades, providing an injection of jobs and revenue into the local economy. But the boom also produced high ozone levels that exceeded the federal health standard of 75 parts per million over an eight-hour period. A high of 124 parts per million was reached one day in 2011. The region has not seen ozone levels breach the standard in 2012 and 2013.
DEQ announced an ozone strategy in March to bring the area into compliance with federal rules. The standards that went into effect this month are a piece of that strategy.
They require quarterly inspections of gas operations that fall inside the newly established Upper Green River Basin permit development area. Previously, inspections were done on an annual basis.
The Upper Green River Basin area is the second management zone in the Pinedale area, alongside the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline Development Area, which encompasses much of the development in the region. Together the Upper Green River Basin and Jonah and Pinedale Anticline areas comprise all of the area deemed out of compliance by the EPA.
Brent Rockwood, director of communications for QEP Resources Inc., noted that the standards in the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline Development Area exceed those in the new Upper Green River Basin area. Companies are allowed to emit 4 tons of volatile organic compounds annually before facing further emission control measures in the Upper Green River Basin. Statewide that figure is 10 tons annually. In the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline it is zero.
As a result, the new standards will not affect QEP’s operations, Rockwood said.
Energy companies have made progress in curbing emissions because the public has pushed for stricter regulations, said Elaine Crumpley, president of Citizens United for Responsible Energy Development. The group advocates for great pollution controls in Sublette County and the surrounding area.
“This is one of the first steps that we’ve been waiting and waiting for,” she said. “We’re going to make sure they are held accountable for using better technology.”