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Douglas flaring rig

A rig near Douglas is flooded with light as dusk turns to night. The orange glow at right is gas being flared off. The Environmental Protection Agency proposed rolling back federal methane regulations.

The Trump administration announced a proposal Thursday to relax federal methane-emission limits, spurring both cheers and consternation among oil and gas developers nationwide. If the change is implemented, the Environmental Protection Agency would reverse Obama-era air quality rules that attempt to stop methane from seeping into the atmosphere.

What this means for Wyoming air quality regulations remains unclear, but local developers and public officials seemed nonplussed.

“We’re looking at what that means for the state,” said Keith Guille, public information officer for Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality, an agency monitoring air quality. “From our standpoint, it’s proposed and nothing has changed.”

Oil companies like BP, Shell and Exxon Mobil opposed the proposed rollbacks, citing the need for regulatory certainty on both a state and federal level.

Wyoming oil and gas developers said business would likely continue as usual.

“We have to get away from the thought that doing good environmental work means having the federal government involved,” said Pete Obermueller, executive director of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. “… We have some pretty significant obligations at the state level that go beyond just methane — and that’s not going away.”

As it stands, Wyoming’s emission standards largely align with the federal standards. In fact, the 2016 federal emissions rule change mirrored standards first applied to the polluted Upper Green River Basin near Pinedale.

Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality monitors the state’s air quality, making sure methane and volatile organic compounds from leaks stay within safe limits. The agency promulgated new emission rules at the tail end of 2018, while former Gov. Matt Mead was still in office. The new regulations directly reference the Obama-era federal emission standards that the Trump administration hopes to roll back. Wyoming’s rule required new and modified oil and gas facilities across the state to meet additional emission standards and undergo regular inspections.

“The state of Wyoming already regulates methane emissions from oil and gas production. There’s no need for Washington to pile on,” said Sen. John Barrasso in a statement. “I will work with Wyoming to evaluate the Environmental Protection Agency’s new proposal. We need commonsense rules that protect our air without hurting our economy.”

Sen. Mike Enzi endorsed the Trump administration’s change, calling current federal regulations “excessive and overly burdensome,” in a statement Thursday.

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Wyoming oil often fetches a higher price than natural gas. On top of that, infrastructure limitations can leave operators with extra natural gas on their hands. Flaring, or burning off extra gas, constitutes one accepted, though regulated, method of disposal. Facilities can also release methane and volatile organic compounds if leaks or equipment defects occur.

Methane is considered 84 times more potent in warming the climate than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

“The EPA rollback, it’s obviously very bad news for air quality,” said Jon Goldstein, director of regulatory and legislative affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund.

The economic consequences of wasted natural gas are notable too, he added.

Lost gas translates into lost tax revenue for Wyoming, according to to a 2018 report by the Wyoming Outdoor Council and Environmental Defense Fund. The groups concluded the state lost approximately $8.8 million to $16.1 million in revenue every year from wasted natural gas. The coffers of Converse, Goshen, Campbell, Laramie and Sweetwater counties each lost an estimated half-million dollars from wasted natural gas, according to the report.

If the federal proposal moves ahead, Goldstein said it would likely “put more onus on Gov. Mark Gordon and the DEQ to fill that gap.”

“The good news is that for Wyoming because of that tradition of leadership, because of Wyoming’s history of stepping out and making sure these things are done in the state’s requirements, it should not be impacted by these rollbacks for new and modified wells,” Goldstein said.

Upon learning about the proposed rollback at the federal level, Connie Wilbert feared for the worst in Wyoming and beyond. The director of the Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter said state air quality standard while notable, could always be improved.

“We are extremely disappointed in this action, it just flies in the face of everything we know about the impending climate change challenges we are already facing,” Wilbert said. “Unfortunately, when we have federal agencies rolling back these kinds of regulations, that really sends the wrong message to states like Wyoming. It undercuts our efforts.”

A 60-day public comment period will commence once the agency publishes the new rule in the Federal Register.

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