Ozone Delay: Despite regulatory reprieve, Wyoming still has an ozone problem

President Barack Obama’s decision last week to back off from a more stringent ozone standard is intended to avoid an estimated $90 billion cost to implement, and to avoid adding another layer of regulatory “uncertainty” at a time when the nation’s unemployment rate remains dangerously elevated.

Pinedale teaser

Related Story: Wyoming governor, industry won't promise an ozone-free Pinedale

But Wyoming’s oil and gas industry still isn’t meeting the old ozone standard in the Upper Green River Basin, where 13 high ozone events this year forced the state to issue 10 warnings to stay indoors to avoid the pollution from energy development in the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline fields.

Delaying the implementation of a new ozone standard until 2013 may actually put more pressure on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to move forward with a recommended “non-attainment” designation for all of Sublette and parts of Sweetwater and Fremont counties due to the ongoing ozone problem.

“I wouldn’t say putting it off creates more certainty,” EnCana Oil & Gas USA spokesman Randy Teeuwen told WyoFile. “Our intend is not to fight it, necessarily. Our intent is to use the best science available and implement the best practices available.”

Advocates of the new, lower-threshold ozone standard that Obama abandoned say it is backed by years of scientific consensus, and that delaying a new standard injects more uncertainty regarding human health impacts in the Upper Green River Basin.

“We are now left with a standard that (does not meet) what experts recommend for public health,” said Bruce Pendery of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

Wyoming’s Ozone Problem

The Upper Green River Basin commonly experiences temperature inversions during the coldest part of the winter — long periods when cold air is trapped close to the surface and the wind doesn’t blow in the valley.

When there’s an inversion, volatile organic compounds (VOC) from natural gas facilities and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from tailpipe emissions are suspended low in the valley — along with smoke from wood-burning stoves and other background pollution. If the valley is blanketed in snow, then the VOCs and NOx are exposed to direct sunlight and light reflected from snow, causing a photochemical reaction that creates ozone.

Kevin Williams describes how operations in the Pinedale Anticline natural gas field have been upgraded to reduce ozone-contributing emissions. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile - click to enlarge)

EnCana and other developers have proposed several new drilling projects in the Upper Green River Basin, promising that by consolidating facilities and using lower-emission technology they hope to expand drilling while reducing overall emissions that contribute to ozone. By applying these strategies and technologies, the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline did drill more wells with fewer emissions for a short time. But it still didn’t prevent ozone spikes this past winter, underscoring the fact that some regions are more prone than others.

Teeuwen said he hopes the 2-year delay to set a new ozone standard will buy enough time to work out a sort of cap-and-trade program; if drillers are forced to lower ozone-contributing emissions in the Upper Green River Basin, they want to be able to emit more pollutants in other areas that are not as prone to ozone spikes.

“We need to find some way to get credit for doing good work in order to continue to produce energy somewhere else or in the same area,” said Teeuwen.

But trading ozone emissions from one location to another isn’t the intent nor the law under the Clean Air Act, said Bruce Pendery.

“This is specifically what EPA’s prevention of significant deterioration (PSD) program is all about — keeping clean air areas clean, and all of Wyoming is PSD. No place is currently non-attainment, but that of course could change in the Upper Green,” said Pendery.

Pendery said the scientific consensus behind the new ozone standard isn’t going to change in the next two years. In meantime, Wyoming residents remain at risk of exposure to high levels of ozone during the winter season in the Pinedale region.

Seperation facilities in the Pinedale Anticline

Separation facilities in the Pinedale Anticline have been consolidated to reduce emissions. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile - click to enlarge)

“The health of people in Wyoming could still be put at risk even if efforts are being made to reduce emissions,” he said. “If the target is wrong — and the target is wrong — then you’re not to get it right.”

Some in the oil and gas industry are holding out hope they are not forced to comply with the more stringent standard proposed by EPA.

“We know what the ozone standard will be until such time it is scientifically reviewed and changed in (EPA’s) regular five-year cycle (due in 2013). That makes sense at time of high unemployment,” Kathleen Sgamma of the Western Energy Alliance told WyoFile.

Steve Dietrich, air quality administrator, at the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality, said his agency now awaits direction from EPA on how to move forward with the non-attainment recommendation in the Upper Green River Basin. If designated to be in non-attainment, then the state must develop an implementation plan for how to bring the area back into compliance with the Clean Air Act.

Dietrich said such a plan could limit a wide range of industrial and other activities: “It’s activities, it’s permitting programs. …Sometimes regulatory changes needed to support the implementation plan.”

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— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at (307) 577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

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Published on September 6, 2011

  • Inky

    When corporate profits are threatened by scientific findings, it is SOP for the GOP to either attack the science, cast doubt about it or ignore it.
    Considering that GOP politicians all claim to follow the Bible, isn’t it odd how they’ve all elevated corporate profit to god-hood above all else? The Israelites used to have a golden calf. The GOP now has a golden Wall Street bull that they worship.

  • DeweyV

    Print out the pertinent regulations on Kleenex. Then at the least you can blow your irritated nose or wipe your oozing eyes.

    I’ve already lived long enough to see two other Boom and Bust cycles in Wyoming. ( Uranium, Oil ) We got jilted and left virtually penniless. The energy corporations do not care about the health of people and their welfare. We’re just tools to use and discard. So much for the wonders of capitalism. They leave, but we still live here. Why do I feel I have seen this movie before ?

    What I also see is a Governor and a State Legislature hellbent on fast-tracking more energy and mineral development , with very little concern , let alone policy , towards fostering economic diversity down the road ?

    What is Wyoming’s Plan B ? Plan C? – for a thinly populated state where agriculture is marginal and doesn’t pay the bills, and tourism is dependent on externalities beyond our control ?

    What does a Post-Hydrocarbon Wyoming look like ? How are your aboriginal survival skills these days?

  • Mary Lou Morrison

    I FIND THIS ACTION BY THE PRESIDENT I WORKED TO ELECT, VERY DISTRESSING. I ALSO FIND THE GREAT CHEERING SUPPORT OF OUR CONGRESSIONAL DELEGATION NOT SURPRISING BUT STUPID. OUR DR. BARRASSO SHOULD WELL KNOW ABOUT THE HEALTH RISKS AND RESULTS OF OZONE LEVELS.WHY WAS THE EPA PASSED IN THE FIRST PLACE? TO PROTECT THE AIR WE BREATHE, THE H2O WE DRINK AND THE LAND FROM WHERE OUR FOOD COMES. WHEN I MOVED TO WYOMING OVER 50 YEARS AGO TO TEACH ART, I CONSTANTLY ENCOURAGED STUDENTS TO OBSERVE AND APPRECIATE THE GREAT BEAUTY OF OUR STATE. I HAVE NOTICED IN VERY RECENT YEARS, MORE FREQUENT, DETERIORATION OF THE CLEAR VIEWS OF THE BIG HORNS FROM CASPER MOUNTAIN NORTH. OFTEN RESIDENTS FROM POLLUTED REGIONS, PRAISE OUR “PRISTEEN” ENVIRONMENT. MY GREAT CONCERN IS WHAT WILL IT BE IN 50 MORE YEARS OR EVEN 5 OR 10, CONSIDERING OUR GUNG HO DEVELOPMENT MENTALITY? WE HAVE SUCH MINERAL WEALTH, BUT WE MUST THINK INTO THE FUTURE AND FOR PETE’S SAKE, THINK “HEALTHY GREEN CONSERVATION”!

  • Tom Bell

    I agree 100 percent with Rollin Sparrowe. Maintaining the health of people should be a cost of doing business. Pinedale’s air was some of the purest in the world until drilling for oil and gas took place. Whatever it takes to return air quality to some semblance of “good” should be the responsibility of industry. Obama was flat out wrong to bow to industry. Paul Krugman has pointed out that having to clean up the air would be costly but a job creator. People in the industry make money hand over fist and should be responsible for keeping the environment healthy for the people of the community in which they work.

  • Rollin Sparrowe

    A simple change in the way existing laws are implemented would seem to be a fair solution that preserves both public health and the ability to produce energy. We know what the current need for industry compliance is until it is changed-so continuing operation and development such as at the Anticline and Jonah should be required to do what ever it takes to meet existing ozone and other air pollutant requirements as a cost of doing business. They should not be allowed-as they are- to “do the best we can” because it isn’t good enough to maintain public health. The answer for further proposed development is the same-industry should only be allowed to proceed if air quality requirements are all met at all times-not get into a situation where things have to fixed but development goes on.

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