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Gas flaring

Flares burn off excess natural gas at a site run by Chesapeake Energy in 2013 east of Douglas.

Wyoming’s rules regarding venting and flaring of gas in the oil fields aren’t as stringent as federal rules that came under fire from the Trump administration, but the Cowboy State’s record is changing despite the federal walk back, according to a report released last Tuesday by the Wilderness Society and Taxpayers for Common Sense.

The environmental group’s report trails a national assessment by more than a dozen federal agencies on climate change that counts methane among the drivers of traumatic economic consequences in the United States without policies to rein in greenhouse gasses.

The Bureau of Land Management’s methane rules have gone in and out of effect, attracting the ire of many in Congress and the oil and gas industry, while running through the legal system multiple times across federal courts in the West.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Wyoming put that legal battle on hold earlier this year and stayed a number of the more contentious provisions of the federal rules while the Bureau of Land Management worked on a revised rule. The new direction of those federal rules will more closely align the agency’s process with the various state rules on burning or venting gas into the air, inviting pushback from the original rule’s proponents who say not all states are up to the task.

“Our report shows the patchwork of standards across the states will only increase methane waste and taxpayer losses,” Ryan Alexander, president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, said in a statement last Tuesday.

The report gave Wyoming a poor grade, but noted that the state is poised to do a much better job of regulating gas that is burned or leaked in the state’s various plays as new regulations are in the works.

“Wyoming has taken significant steps to address methane waste and pollution from our oil and gas facilities, but there’s still more to be done,” said Dan Smitherman, Wyoming manager for the Wilderness Society.

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Environmental groups have been reticent to give up the long tussle over these rules. Finalized in the last months of the Obama Administration, the rules were considered “common sense” to supporters despite industry complaints. While various regulations from the Obama era have been subject to scrutiny and revision from the Trump administration, few have held against the various critics as firmly as the methane rule. The conservative majority Senate couldn’t get rid of the rules in early 2017 and the Department of Interior encountered scolding from the courts when they tried to axe them. The BLM’s revision, however, has followed the proper protocol for replacing the 2016 version.

Whether those rules are appropriate or a disaster is still debated.

The Wilderness Society report is the latest in environmental groups’ attempts to hold onto requirements on all federal and tribal land, like using infrared cameras to check for leaks and sending workers to regularly check infrastructure for fugitive emissions of gas.

Industry, meanwhile, approves of the revision rule from the Trump administration and remains dismissive of environmental groups’ stubbornness.

“The new rule, unlike the old one it replaces, adheres to the law, and these groups should stop repeating false information in an attempt to resurrect an unlawful rule,” said Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance.

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The methane report notes that Wyoming does not have a strict venting prohibition like the federal rules, but it does exceed the stayed BLM rules from 2016 in terms of its emission reduction requirements for storage facilities.

Wyoming’s overall score, comparing what the state does now versus what the BLM rule would have done, is 55 percent.

Part of Wyoming’s low score is due to its differing standards across the state, with some regions carrying stricter rules than others.

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission have a number of requirements and best practices that apply solely to the Upper Green River Basin — an area that was plagued by dangerous air quality due to a boom in gas production and its uniquely bowl-shaped geography.

However, both industry and environmental groups have voiced approval for the Department of Environmental Quality’s decision to expand some of the best practices from the Upper Green statewide, with a final rule expected in December.

As the state considers escalating its standards, groups are still hoping for some improvements from the draft rules, including monitoring for leaks on existing wells — not just new ones — and plugging leaks.

“We expect the state to continue to lead on eliminating methane waste,” Smitherman said.

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The report acknowledges Wyoming’s changes but does argue that the value of Wyoming gas lost to venting and flaring over the last decade was significant, nearly $65 million.

Industry groups like the Petroleum Association of Wyoming have previously criticized the valuation of gas that is burned or exhaled from environmental groups, noting that gas is comprised of a number of components from methane to helium that aren’t salable.

“This is just another repackaging of the flawed analysis that these groups have been using for years on the supposed value of the gas lost, which we have debunked multiple times,” Sgamma said of the wasted gas numbers in the report.

Environmental groups claim they’ve taken the various gasses into account.

Wyoming is a significant state in terms of federal regulations and federal minerals. The state represented 20 percent of federal oil production and 43 percent of federal gas production in 2017, according to the report.

Notably, the original BLM rules causing such contention are based in no small part on Wyoming’s standards in the Upper Green River Basin.

Other Western states were given poorer grades by the report, with New Mexico at the bottom of the list. New Mexico’s regulations lack comparable or more stringent rules, compared to the BLM’s now-defunct standards.

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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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