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Wyoming's reaction to Obama methane proposal: no big deal

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In recent years, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rolled out plans to regulate carbon dioxide, ozone and water, reactions in Wyoming fell into a predictable pattern.

State lawmakers, industry representatives and groups of citizens lined up to angrily denounce EPA plans as examples of federal overreach, arguing that the proposals would result in skyrocketing compliance costs and, in some cases, job losses.

But when the Obama administration outlined a new plan to reduce methane emissions last week, a curious thing happened. It was met with silence.

The change in tone stems in part from how the methane proposal was unveiled. Administration officials offered few specifics on how they intend to curb the powerful greenhouse gas from leaking into the atmosphere.

Instead they just gave a goal: reduce methane emissions 40 to 45 percent below their 2012 levels by 2025. A specific plan is expected to be announced sometime in the spring.

Yet the lack of specifics explains only part of Wyoming's non-reaction. State officials, industry representatives and environmentalists say recent efforts to address air quality issues mean Wyoming is in good shape to meet the target reduction. 

"As far as I can tell, the things they are talking about we’re already doing," said John Robitaille, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, the top oil and gas lobbying group in the state. 

He noted that his opinion could change based on the proposal's specifics. 

The effort to reduce methane emissions is part of the Obama administration's wider push to tackle climate change. Methane accounted for roughly 7 percent of all reported greenhouse gas emissions in 2013, according to the EPA.

However, the gas is far more potent than the country's most common greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide. Recent studies have shown methane traps heat at 20 times the rate of CO2. 

Oil and gas operations are the top emitters of methane in the United States, accounting for roughly 30 percent of the country's total

The administration said the new rules would apply only to new gas field infrastructure. They would not cover existing wells, pipelines and other oil and gas equipment. 

Some companies said they think they are well-placed to meet the requirements. Jonah Energy, which bought a share in western Wyoming's prolific natural gas fields in 2014, employs an extensive leak detection and repair program aimed at reducing emissions from its operations. 

"We continue to work hard to put measures in place to keep us from playing catchup on the regulatory front," said Paul Ulrich, the firm's regulatory director. "We believe this program has accomplished that to date."

He added that Jonah Energy is still reviewing the proposal and remains unsure of its impacts.

Anadarko Petroleum has made significant investments to reduce methane emissions, said company spokeswoman Robin Olsen.

She noted that Anadarko supported Colorado's first-in-the-nation strategy to reduce methane emissions. The firm also employs infrared cameras to detect leaks in all the major basins it works in, she said. 

"We’ve taken these actions to reduce emissions for two primary reasons. One, it’s the right thing to do as a leading operator, and two, we have a natural incentive to ensure the natural gas we produce stays in the pipeline," Olsen wrote in an email. 

Wyoming regulators have sought to cut down on emissions in the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah Field in recent years. Operators there are required to use the best available technology to reduce emissions at new wells.

The state is finalizing a rule that would require existing wells with large emissions streams to cut 98 percent of their pollution.

Those rules are largely aimed at volatile organic compounds, which can create ozone under the right conditions. But efforts to reduce ozone also help contain methane, said Jon Goldstein, a senior policy analyst at the Environmental Defense Fund.

"The molecules are in the same pipeline," he said. "Everything you do to reduce VOCs will reduce methane." 

A defense fund analysis of EPA numbers found that Wyoming emitted nearly about 138 million tons of methane in 2013. By the Environmental Defense Fund's estimate, that equates to roughly $17.8 million in lost gas.  

"Methane is a potent greenhouse gas," Goldstein said. "It is important to get after because of climate change. Setting that debate aside, methane is natural gas. The natural gas we use is primarily methane. Letting those methane molecules leak into the atmosphere is waste."

Potential for conflict nonetheless remains. The tight rules in the Upper Green River Basin do not apply elsewhere in the state.

Debate over expansion of those regulations increased recently after the EPA proposed lowering the current ozone standard. Several parts of eastern and central Wyoming could be in violation of the new ozone standard.

Jerimiah Rieman, natural resource policy director for Gov. Matt Mead, said some companies have expressed worries about the new methane rules, while others have said it should not pose much of a problem.  

"Generally we expect it is something the operators in the Upper Green River Basin are used to," Rieman said. "It is a question of what it will mean for operators in the rest of the state."

The state has long anticipated the methane rules. BLM Director Neil Kornze told policymakers at the recent Western Governors Association meeting to expect the bureau to revamp its methane regulations in the spring.

Wyoming officials expect the federal plan to mirror the state's rules in the Upper Green River Basin and a Colorado strategy to reduce methane, Rieman said.

Still, he noted, "It will be important to see what the details are."  


Reach energy reporter Benjamin Storrow at 307-335-5344 or Follow him on Twitter @bstorrow


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