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Air quality

A QEP Resources drilling rig sits on the Pinedale Anticline in May 2012. The state has proposed extending some air quality rules that exist in the once-pollution heavy Upper Green River Basin to the rest of the state.

Shortly after the Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it would roll back methane regulations on the nation’s oil and gas industry, officials from Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality faced a fractious group in Casper over plans to increase standards on a state level.

The Air Quality Division held a public meeting Tuesday following its proposal to update best practices for oil and gas development. The guidance aims to reduce methane emissions from infrastructure and would extend some rules that operators must follow in the once-pollution heavy Upper Green River Basin to other parts of the state.

The state regulators’ direction is supported by conservation and landowner advocates in Wyoming and would make state rules more in line with those at the Environmental Protection Agency for new and modified sources of emissions, like oil and gas wells and associated equipment.

But landowners that traveled to Casper on Tuesday also noted frustration that the state wasn’t doing more to regulate industry operations. Industry representatives approved of the proposed changes, noting what’s best for oil and gas is consistency between federal and state rules.

Development in Wyoming in recent years, particular since the price of crude began to steadily improve in 2017, has focused on the eastern part of the state. Addressing emissions in those areas has not been a targeted issue for state regulators, largely because the unique pollution crisis of the Upper Green River Basin – a bowl shaped area that had a sudden increase in gas development with the discovery of natural gas deposits – hasn’t been mirrored statewide.

Nancy Vehr, the DEQ’s Air Quality Division administrator, noted at the meeting that the department has limited resources to monitor air quality but has focused on watching these developing areas. Air quality issues like those that arise from volatile organic compounds and contribute to ozone have remained well within in safe limits, she said.

But landowners have been pushing for state regulators to pay more attention to regions where oil and gas has the most potential going forward.

The state has received a record number of applications for permits to drill in areas like the Powder River Basin, as well as the DJ basin in southwestern Wyoming. The eastern areas are not yet equipped with the infrastructure that will be needed to fully capture gas that is produced as a byproduct of oil production. That infrastructure is also a concern going forward due to emissions that escape through cracks in pipelines, for example.

Those pressing the Department of Environmental Quality said state regulators should get ahead of potential air quality concerns in areas where development is expanding, both to capture more revenue for the state and for public health.

“I understand the differences between the Upper Green and statewide,” said Mary Flanderka, a policy advocate for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “But whether it’s for health or revenue, I don’t know that we should let [gas] go into the air, just because we can.”

John Robitaille, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said the most important thing for industry is to streamline regulations. The proposal from the department, which adds guidance like bi-annual checks for leaks in infrastructure, means Wyoming operators can adhere to both federal and state standards as one.

“Having one reference gives us security that we are following the right rules,” Robitaille said Tuesday.

But the federal rules do face uncertainty.

The EPA announced Tuesday that it was reconsidering its methane approach, signaling a potential rollback that would take Obama-era standards in favor of those from earlier years. The agency estimates its streamlining efforts will save industry up to $75 million a year between now and 2025.

The EPA finalized its methane standards in 2016 that included efforts to catch leaks from new or modified sources of emissions in the oil and gas fields. The agency was in the early stages of identifying ways to develop rules for the expansive existing infrastructure in the U.S. as well.

But the Trump administration cancelled industry surveys last year that were meant to assist in building those rules.

This new direction has fired up local advocates who want greater action from the state to make up for federal rollbacks.

Wyoming’s proposed updates tie some best practices, like on the ground checks of infrastructure, to the EPA rules.

Jon Goldstein of the Environmental Defense Fund said Wyoming has a history of leading the feds on regulations. It should continue to do so and keep the separation between the EPA rules and the state rules clear, he said in a prepared statement.

Goldstein also pointed out that the state was rewording the definition of modified sources and that the new language would narrow the scope of what is covered under the new guidance.

“I understand that industry wants some certainty, but for some reason the federal government is flipping back and forth,” said the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s Flanderka.

Robitaille, of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, said he doesn’t agree with the concern over federal rollbacks. If federal standards change, Wyoming can always hold on to its stricter rules, he said.

The EPA’s approach to curbing methane pollution has been an integral part of industry’s argument in a battle over methane rules nationally.

The Bureau of Land Management, a ubiquitous presence in Wyoming, had proposed its own methane standards at the tail-end of the Obama administration.

Groups like Denver-based Western Energy Alliance argued that the Bureau of Land Management was overstepping its authority and should leave air quality to the Environmental Protection Agency. The rules have been in court repeatedly since they were finalized.

However, the BLM standards – which were largely modeled on Wyoming’s approach to the Upper Green River Basin — have been targeted by the Interior Department for revision or elimination.

As Wyomingites argued over state rules Tuesday, the Trump administration signaled significant changes to the EPA rules.

Robitaille of the Wyoming Petroleum Association noted that during the promulgation and implementation of these regulations, industry has consistently improved its approach to capturing more gas.

“We’ve shown that through the years we’ve had an increase in production and a decrease in emissions,” he said. “I’m damn proud of that.”

Landowners in the room had a different take. Many live outside Cheyenne and they testified to the growth of development taking place near their homes and under them. They outlined frustrations with the Air Quality Division for making a compromise with industry on best practices, using some that were years old when better technology exists today to reduce emissions.

Holding up phots of a gray and hazy sunrise on her land, Dawn Dungan, argued that oil and gas activity has affected her and her husband’s health — from respiratory problems to more serious symptoms like seizures.

In a heated exchange with Vehr, administrator of the Air Quality Division, Dungan said regulators were failing to take health impacts of development seriously.

“Only you can stop this,” she said as Vehr asked her to calm down. “Honestly, we are sick from this.”

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Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner


Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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