Natural gas is set to increase its share of the electrical utility market if the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency moves forward with plans to phase in greenhouse gas regulations, beginning in January.
On the production side, a handful of natural gas producers in Wyoming say they've already come a long way in reducing their own emissions in the field.
EnCana Oil & Gas USA spokesman Randy Teeuwen said reducing emissions from its upstream operations isn't a "job killer" as some people claim.
"It's very much the opposite," Teeuwen said.
During the past six months EnCana has added six employees to monitor emissions from all potential sources at its Jonah natural gas field in southwest Wyoming. Another employee oversees the company's emission compliance for the Jonah operations. The effort to detect, measure and curb emissions also requires a constant upgrading of facilities.
"It goes into the economy, and somebody has to manufacture all those tanks and valves and pipes and so forth. And we just put six new people into the work force," Teeuwen said. "It's not eliminating jobs for us. It's adding jobs."
Although there are certain benefits to curbing emissions, Teeuwen and others in the natural gas industry caution that it's impossible to know the outcome of regulating greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. Operators in the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline fields have the advantage of deep pockets and tightly packed drilling areas, which provide opportunities to consolidate systems and employ special low-emission, cookie-cutter drilling rigs.
In contrast, coal-bed methane operations in the Powder River Basin span several hundred square miles. Each water discharge facility vents some amount of methane -- a potent greenhouse gas.
Of particular concern in Sublette County are emissions of volatile organic compounds and nitric oxide. It's believed that intense drilling and construction activity, and the engines that power the work, contributed to several high-ozone events in the Pinedale area.
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In the Pinedale Anticline, gas operators invested in a liquid gathering network for condensate -- or residual oil -- which has already eliminated tens of thousands of truck trips in and out of the field, and in turn reduced emissions.
Methane seeps from separating and compression facilities are also common. Methane is 24 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas. It's been common practice to equip these facilities with pneumatic controls which steadily vent methane into the atmosphere.
But in recent years, QEP Resources Inc., Shell Upstream Americas, Ultra Petroleum, Devon Energy, EnCana and other gas producers in Wyoming have replaced those pneumatic controls with new "low-bleed" devices. Instead of venting the greenhouse gas, it goes into the pipeline for sale.
"We have, over the last couple of years, gone through extraordinary lengths in terms of reducing emissions and (volatile organic compound) emissions in Jonah," Teeuwen said. "It's the good business model, and it's in our own interest to reduce emissions for a variety of reasons. One being it keeps the product we produce in the revenue stream."
Teeuwen said another benefit of cutting emissions is to gain broader public support, which will be critical when EnCana wants to expand its drilling and production operations.
The company is in preliminary discussions with federal officials on its proposed "Normally Pressured Lance Formation" project. The field would wrap around much of the Jonah gas field and include 3,500 new wells.
"We would not have the same trust and confidence of our stakeholders in Sublette County and across the state if we did not demonstrate that we are doing our very best to eliminate emissions," Teeuwen said.
"The commission is generally in favor of these projects," said Sublette County Commission Chairman Bill Cramer.