Chesapeake Gas Drilling

A Trinidad Drilling rig leased by Chesapeake Energy bores a natural gas well in Converse County north of Douglas.

Eighty percent of the some 4,300 oil and gas wells permitted in Wyoming during the past 12 months are in counties with the lowest level of state air quality protection, according to a Star-Tribune review.

Wyoming has taken action to curb emissions from oil and gas development in some parts of the state in recent years, most notably in the Pinedale area. Companies there are now required to use the best available technology to control emissions from their operations. 

But the vast majority of new energy development today is occurring in counties where oil and gas operations are allowed a higher pollution threshold.

Five counties accounted for 80 percent of the drilling permits issued by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission during the last year. Four of those -- Campbell, Converse, Johnson and Laramie -- were covered by the state air quality region with the lowest level of pollution control. Sublette County, covered by the state's most stringent air quality requirements, was the sole exception.  

The difference is substantial. An oil and gas operator working in Campbell County, for instance, is allowed to emit up to 10 tons of volatile organic compounds annually before it is required to install pollution controls.

Volatile organic compounds, or VOCs as they are often called, are a collection of pollutants that can create ozone under the right circumstances.

The VOC threshold for the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline Development Area in Sublette County, by contrast, is zero. 

The discrepancy reflects a transition in Wyoming’s energy development, from natural gas to oil and from west to east. New oil development is pushing up against the city limits of Douglas and Cheyenne today while companies like Encana and Anadarko Petroleum are divesting from the natural-gas-rich Jonah Field outside Pinedale. 

Environmentalists say state regulators need to act now before new wells are drilled. A Bureau of Land Management projection predicts that 5,000 wells will be drilled in Converse County alone during the next decade. 

They argue that early action would prevent the type of situation that occurred in Pinedale between 2008 and 2011, when high ozone levels prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to declare the region a nonattainment area. The designation is a prime reason for emission curbs on natural gas operations there today.

“It is important for the state to consider increasing its standards for air quality where all the development is occurring now,” said Jon Goldstein, senior energy policy manager at the Environmental Defense Fund, a national environmental group. “The state has a history of leading on these efforts. They have a chance to do that again here.”

State regulators reject Pinedale comparisons. Whereas the Jonah Field abuts the Wind River Mountains, the Powder River Basin and area around Cheyenne are largely flat. Whereas the Jonah Field is for natural gas production, the new development is largely oil. A repeat of Pinedale is hardly guaranteed in eastern Wyoming, they say.

Regulators nonetheless say they have learned from the Pinedale experience. The Department of Environmental Quality, which is responsible for regulating air quality, has deployed two air quality monitors near Gillette and another near Douglas to collect baseline data.

“DEQ is currently reviewing the permitting requirements for new and modified production sites in the Powder River Basin to determine if lower control thresholds are warranted,” Cole Anderson, the agency's new source review program manager, wrote in an email to the Star-Tribune.

The department breaks Wyoming into four air quality regions. The Jonah and Pinedale Anticline Development Area, which covers two natural gas fields in Sublette County, is the most stringent.

It is followed by the Upper Green River Basin. Encompassing parts of Sublette, Lincoln and Sweetwater counties, that area requires companies to place pollution controls on multiple-well developments from the start of operations. Single-well developments are required to install controls if they emit more than four tons of VOCs annually.

In the Concentrated Development Area, comprising all of Carbon, Fremont, Natrona and Uinta counties and parts of Lincoln and Sweetwater counties, companies are required to install pollution controls at multi-well developments from the onset of operations. Single-well facilities have an annual eight-ton VOC threshold.

The state region covers all remaining counties. Its VOC threshold is 10 tons annually for all facilities. The Department of Environmental Quality revised that standard in 2007, lowering it from the previous limit of 20 tons annually.

About 3,400 of the 4,300 drilling permits approved during the past 12 months were in counties belonging to the state region.

“We always need to reflect on our standards to see if they are effective and implemented efficiently,” said Shawn Reese, policy director for Gov. Matt Mead.

The DEQ plans to meet with industry officials and members of the Air Quality Advisory Board later this year to discuss whether improvements or new air quality guidance is needed, he said.

The Star-Tribune contacted three major oil and gas producers for this story. Chesapeake Energy declined comment. Encana also declined, saying its divestment from the Jonah Field and lack of operations in eastern Wyoming meant it was inappropriate to comment.

An Anadarko representative said the company, one of the most active in the eastern Wyoming oil plays, will continue to work with state regulators to address air quality issues.

“Anadarko continues to be a leader in our efforts to reduce emissions and invest in midstream and pipeline infrastructure that enables us to put more of our product in the sales line and significantly reduce, and in most cases, eliminate flaring,” Robin Olsen said. “Wyoming has some of the cleanest air in the entire country, and we need to ensure that continues to be the case.”

The discussion over Wyoming’s air quality standards comes at a time when federal regulators are considering the subject.

The Bureau of Land Management is currently considering a rule aimed at limiting flaring and venting from federal oil and gas wells. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama announced a strategy to limit methane emissions, and the EPA recently released five white papers on the subject.

Environmentalists, industry and state officials expressed widespread preference for state air quality regulations, though for different reasons.

Anderson, the Department of Environmental Quality official, noted that Wyoming has updated its air quality rules seven times since 1997. The federal government, by comparison, is considering an update of its rules after 18 years, he said. 

“We’re engaged with regulators wherever we operate and will continue to work with the state of Wyoming to ensure a continued state-based, consistent regulatory regime,” Olsen, the Anadarko representative, said.

She said new rules to limit methane emissions from oil and gas operations in Colorado were "ideal for Colorado."

The lesson of Pinedale is that more communication is needed between the state and federal government to prevent air quality problems before they happen, said Shannon Anderson, an organizer at the Sheridan-based Powder River Basin Resource Council. 

She pointed to projections for new development as an example of why the state needs to act now. 

“I think in so many cases the state is reactive,” Anderson said. “We wait for problems to happen before we think about them. It is much better for everyone involved to think about them and prevent them from happening in the first place.”

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Reach energy reporter Benjamin Storrow at 307-335-5344 or benjamin.storrow@trib.com. Follow him on Twitter @bstorrow