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TOM STROMME, BISMARCK TRIBUNE 

Natural gas is flared at a well site north of Killdeer, North Dakota, along North Dakota Highway 22 on Dec. 12.


Energy
Wyoming noted as vanguard for new oil and gas regs ditched by feds

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.

As federal methane rules wane, Wyoming pressed to do more

Shortly after the Environmental Protection Agency announced Tuesday that it would roll back methane regulations on the nation’s oil and gas industry, officials from Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality faced a fractious group in Casper over plans to increase standards on a state level.

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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.


Josh Galemore, Star-Tribune 

Nicholas Scott rides laps around a block in the "Big Tree" neighborhood south of downtown Casper on Friday morning. Scott tries to ride his bike a few hours every day for exercise but admitted that if it was a bit more snowy he probably wouldn't be out.


National
AP
EPA targets Obama crackdown on mercury from coal plants

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Friday targeted an Obama-era regulation credited with helping dramatically reduce toxic mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants, saying the benefits to human health and the environment may not be worth the cost of the regulation.

The 2011 Obama administration rule, called the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, led to what electric utilities say was an $18 billion clean-up of mercury and other toxins from the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants.

Overall, environmental groups say, federal and state efforts cut mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants by 85 percent in roughly the last decade.

Mercury causes brain damage, learning disabilities and other birth defects in children, among other harm. Coal power plants in this country are the largest single man-made source of mercury pollutants, which enters the food chain through fish and other items that people consume.

A proposal Friday from the Environmental Protection Agency challenges the basis for the Obama regulation. It calculates that the crackdown on mercury and other toxins from coal plants produced only a few million dollars a year in measurable health benefits and was not “appropriate and necessary” — a legal benchmark under the country’s landmark Clean Air Act.

The proposal, which now goes up for public comment before final administration approval, would leave the current mercury regulation in place.

However, the EPA said it will seek comment during a 60-day public-review period on whether “we would be obligated to rescind” the Obama-era rule if the agency adopts Friday’s finding that the regulation was not appropriate and necessary. Any such change would trigger new rounds in what have already been years of court battles over regulating mercury pollution from coal plants.

Friday’s move is the latest by the Trump administration that changes estimates of the costs and payoffs of regulations as part of an overhaul of Obama-era environmental protections.

It’s also the administration’s latest proposed move on behalf of the U.S. coal industry, which has been struggling in the face of competition from natural gas and other cheaper, cleaner forms of energy. The Trump administration in August proposed an overhaul for another Obama-era regulation that would have prodded electricity providers to get less of their energy from dirtier-burning coal plants.

In a statement, the EPA said Friday the administration was “providing regulatory certainty” by more accurately estimating the costs and benefits of the Obama administration crackdown on mercury and other toxic emissions from smokestacks.

Hal Quinn, head of the National Mining Association, charged in a statement Friday that the Obama administration carried out “perhaps the largest regulatory accounting fraud perpetrated on American consumers” when it calculated that the broad health benefits to Americans would outweigh the cost of equipment upgrades by power providers.

Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee, condemned the Trump administration’s move.

The EPA “decided to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory” after the successful clean-up of toxins from the country’s coal-plant smokestacks, Carper said.

He and other opponents of the move said the Trump administration was playing with numbers, ignoring what Carper said were clear health, environmental and economic benefits to come up with a bottom line that suited the administration’s deregulatory aims.

Janet McCabe, a former air-quality official in the Obama administration’s EPA, called the proposal part of “the quiet dismantling of the regulatory framework” for the federal government’s environmental protections.

Coming one week into a government shutdown, and in the lull between Christmas and New Year, “this low-key announcement shouldn’t fool anyone — it is a big deal, with significant implications,” McCabe said.


Education
2018: A LOOK BACK
Looking back: Natrona County School District battled bullying throughout 2018

For much of 2018, the Natrona County School District dealt with bullying, whether that was in the form of allegations or policy meant to reduce them.

In January, two sources close to a Kelly Walsh wrestler said he had been held down and waterboarded by older teammates. The district provided few details — a decision that district officials would later lament — and District Attorney Michael Blonigen disputed the account and declined to press charges. A source close to the family rejected Blonigen’s conclusion, and the district never publicly disputed the Star-Tribune’s reporting.

The biggest stories that came out of Casper and Wyoming in 2018

The school board responded to a wave of criticism and more bullying reports by announcing a top-down review of their policies. It held a scarcely attended public forum in the fall before passing a policy that better outlined bullying. It then released discipline guidelines that set districtwide standards for punishments for a variety of offenses. It convened an ad hoc committee of coaches and administrators to study the district’s athletic code of conduct.

Finally, in direct response to its decision not to comment in January, the school board proposed and approved a policy that would free officials to provide more details of significant staff or student events. In just the few weeks that it’s been in effect, it’s been utilized multiple times.

Bullying roiled Natrona County School District in 2018

Still, the issue has proven to be a thorn in the district’s side, dominating headlines and TV reports time after time. Immediately after the Kelly Walsh incident, a number of people shared their own bullying experiences at a school board meeting. An African-American woman said her children were racially abused at two different schools.

In November, a mother told multiple media outlets that her daughter had been bullied on a school bus and later attacked by three girls, which sent her daughter to the hospital.

Generally, the district and the school board have not publicly responded to these allegations. But in this case, the district, utilizing its new transparency policy, disputed some of that family’s characterization. They acknowledged that the girl was bullied but said a video tape of the incident did not support the entirety of her account. The district declined to allow the Star-Tribune to view the video.

In this instance, the district has taken a step it hadn’t recently: It hired an independent third-party investigator to examine its response. The district told the Star-Tribune that local lawyer Craig Silva was retained because the mother had told the newspaper that she was considering a lawsuit.

That issue is ongoing. As of Dec. 20, Silva had not completed his review, and the family had appeared twice before the school board and once before the Casper City Council. The mother has already said she doesn’t believe the investigation will be truly independent, a position she doubled down on after the district hired Silva’s law firm to represent it going forward.