Can technology turn drilling into sunshine?

When it comes to energy development, it’s crystal clear where Wyoming’s governor and its congressional delegation stand; Wyoming is open for business, and most any environmental concern can be satisfactorily addressed through “new technologies” — not by limiting development.

And these new technologies are only available so long as there’s a business-friendly atmosphere, that’s why it’s important to hold the line on taxes and overly-burdensome regulation, according to Wyoming’s Republican Gov. Matt Mead.

“We need these companies — you all — to be profitable so you” can continue to build these technologies, Mead said on Wednesday during a keynote speech at the Petroleum Association of Wyoming’s annual meeting in Casper.

It’s true that new technologies can unlock a trove of domestic energy — be it oil, natural gas, coal, solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear or simple energy efficiency. It’s also true that these, and other new technologies, can shrink the impacts that traditional energy development has had on human health and the environment. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into a more development = improved environmental quality equation. Wyoming’s prime example:

In recent years, operators in the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah natural gas fields claim to have drilled more wells while reducing emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) 50 percent and nitrogen oxides (NOx) 75 percent. This was accomplished by consolidating facilities, reducing truck traffic and re-tooling compressors, separators and rigs with emissions-cutting technologies.

It was a huge and expensive endeavor for the industry. But it still wasn’t enough to avoid 13 dangerous ozone spikes in the Upper Green River Basin this past winter.

Yet EnCana Oil & Gas USA says it hopes to continue the more wells/fewer emissions trend with its proposed “Normally Pressured Lance” project, which includes some 3,500 new wells surrounding the Jonah field.

Some industry strategists and proponents seem to suggest that new technologies allow for unfettered energy development with little or no environmental repercussions.

At the same Petroleum Association of Wyoming meeting on Wednesday, U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyoming) said, “(New technologies) should create an environment where we can recover more oil and gas, more safely for the worker, with less environmental impacts to the surface of the land, to the wildlife and to the air.”

More development with less impacts? That’s a tall order. The Jonah and Pinedale Anticline fields are fairly unique plays consolidated more than other fields, which allows for the use of many of these technologies being touted. And the increased drilling/reduced emissions accomplishment was a snapshot in time. It would be dangerous to extrapolate that trend far into the future.

Then Lummis took it a step further;

“So what we’re seeing now is technology that didn’t exist even in Wyoming five years ago. So the more we move forward in these technology developments here in Wyoming the more we can develop our resources and continue to have not only the environment we have now but a better environment in terms of our air quality and the use of our land,” Lummis said.

In terms of a better environment, the combustion of natural gas produces nearly half the carbon dioxide emissions as the combustion of coal. So when it comes to climate change concerns, natural gas currently has a clear advantage over coal — at the smokestack.

But Lummis was driving at the technologies being applied on the production side of the industry in Wyoming, which contribute significant smog and greenhouse gas emissions. If Jonah and Pinedale Anticline natural gas developers — over a few short years — successfully reduced emissions while drilling more wells, does that really mean more drilling is better for the environment?

For many residents in the Upper Green River Basin it means the industry could have been doing a cleaner job all along.

In her comments, Lummis specifically noted the millions of dollars that Shell, Ultra Petroleum, QEP Energy Co. and EnCana Oil & Gas USA (the four main operators in the Pinedale and Jonah fields) have committed toward wildlife habitat improvements as a sort of off-site fix to make up for habitat loss and other impacts due to full-field development. But it’s difficult to translate those efforts into a net-gain of wildlife habitat.

As for environmental impacts not mitigated through new technologies? Well, there is an acceptable level of impact in each case, according to Gov. Mead. Particularly given the nation’s economic woes.

“It truly is a national security issue. We want to be more and more energy independent,” said Mead. “Now more than ever, when this country is struggling with the economy, we need to provide an abundance of low-cost energy because that is going to get the economy going again.”

Mead claims he is continually bombarded with the notion that Wyoming can either develop energy or conserve its natural resources — a notion that must be flatly rejected, he says. Technology is key to having both.

In more than 40 years in Wyoming I have not run into one person who believes energy and conservation are entirely mutually exclusive. Instead, Mead’s go-to either/or anecdote sounds too much like an attempt to frame an issue rather than to regard a more cautious approach to energy development as legitimate.

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

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Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. The central flaw in Gov. Meadenthal’s construction is that lax environmental regulation leads to “low(er)-cost” energy to the consumer. Wrong. It leads to more profitable energy to producers, and to higher externalized costs (to health, agricultural production and unreclaimed surface disruptions) to the the rest of Wyoming citizens.