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Jonah Field

Jonah Energy inspector Cesar Diaz walks through a natural gas well site in 2014 in the Jonah Field south of Pinedale. Federal regulations based in part of Wyoming's protections in the Upper Green River Basin have been fought by the Trump administration. 

Wyoming has finalized new rules to address methane leaks across the state, expanding statewide some protections that were applied years ago to address pollution in the Upper Green River Basin.

The new standards increase on-the-ground checks for leaks at new or modified oil and gas facilities, meaning more manpower will be used to ensure infrastructure, wells and productions sites are not emitting fugitive gases.

The move comes at a time when environmental groups nationally are pushing back against the Trump administration for rolling back Obama-era methane standards on new or modified sites. The Obama standards are similar to Wyoming’s approach and would have covered all federal and Native American land in the West.

Industry, in Wyoming, has voiced approval for the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s new rules, with the Petroleum Association of Wyoming noting compromises such as enforcing ground-level checks two times a year instead of four. Environmental groups have also applauded Wyoming’s direction, though they are quick to point out that the rules only apply to new and modified wells, leaving three-quarters of Wyoming’s existing industry without the new standards.

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Wyoming’s leadership on the industry rules is being credited in part to outgoing Gov. Matt Mead, who supported a number of vanguard moves in Wyoming. Those include the strong standards in the Upper Green River Basin after the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline fields generated significant air quality problems in the bowl-shaped region in western Wyoming. Mead also supported setback rules for oil and gas wells — increasing the distance from dwellings — and baseline water testing, all strong gains in state standards for the oil and gas industry.

Isaac Brown, executive director of the Center for Methane Emissions Solutions, called Wyoming’s new methane rules a “common-sense” solution. The center is a group of business that specializes in methane leak detection and repair — a growing sector that would benefit greatly from state and federal standards like Wyoming’s that require technology to catch leaks.

“Wyoming has a burgeoning industry of companies already working every day with oil and gas producers to provide cost-effective solutions for methane waste,” Brown said in a statement Thursday. “As Governor Mead prepares to leave office, he does so with a smart, conservation-minded legacy that helps encourage Wyoming’s resources are developed responsibly.”

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The stripped federal methane standards were a big win for environmental groups when they were completed and were notable in Wyoming because they were in part based on the state’s approach in the Upper Green River Basin.

Industry had fought the rules on the basis that they were developed by the Bureau of Land Management rather than the EPA, arguing that the environmental agency was the only one with the authority to regulate air quality. The BLM, before the Trump administration, had argued it was fulfilling its role in conserving natural resources that would otherwise be lost.

Industry has also noted that methane emissions have fallen in recent years and that companies are not wantonly wasting gas that could otherwise be sold.

Companies like Jonah Energy, which has been subject to Wyoming’s strongest air quality regulations in the Upper Green, have said the increased vigilance on equipment has proved financially profitable for them.

The federal rules were finalized at the tail end of the Obama administration. A congressional attempt to kill the rules early in 2017 failed, as did a number of attempts by the Trump administration. Eventually, the Interior Department followed the administrative process to rewrite the rules, which environmentalists are still opposing.

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Wasted gas is not only a result of cracks in pipes or malfunctioning valves in the West. Companies in Wyoming and other states sometimes flare or vent gas when there is not enough infrastructure in place to carry that gas to market. Those practices are limited in Wyoming, though more requests for flaring exemptions have arisen due to increased activity in parts of the state lacking pipeline infrastructure.

Outside Wyoming in North Dakota, flaring in 2018 hit record highs, with enough gas burned off in the state to meet all the natural gas demands of the state for the year. Companies burned off the gas because there was not enough takeaway capacity to move it. Though oil and gas are separate markets with different uses, drilling for one also produces some degree of the other.

Wyoming’s Powder River Basin — an oil-rich stack of plays in the eastern side of the state — is the current hot spot for drilling activity. Both industry and industry watchers note the area does not yet have the infrastructure in place necessary to meet the anticipated drilling activity in queue. The large independent EOG Resources has said 2019 will be a year it focuses on building up infrastructure to meet its plans in the basin. The rapidity at which Wyoming sees more activity in the area will depend on both the price of crude and the groundwork done to ensure takeaway capacity.

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Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner

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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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