An observer watches as gas operators demonstrate a flare in the Jonah field in 2005. Operators have since switched to flareless completions in the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline fields, although emissions are still a major worry to human health and the environment. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Some citizens and conservation groups are telling Wyoming’s environmental regulators that a plan to clean up smog in Sublette County doesn’t go far enough. 

But energy industry representatives say rules eyed for the polluted upper Green River basin shouldn’t be implemented as fast as the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality staff is proposing. Efforts to reduce winter ozone pollution around major oil and gas fields are ambiguous, inconsistent and onerous, they say.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency classifies the upper Green River basin as a “non-attainment” area because winter ozone pollution there has spiked above the 75-parts-per-billion federal limit. On one occasion, the smog measured worse than in Los Angeles.

Wyoming’s Air Quality Advisory Board, a five-member citizen panel appointed by the governor, meets Dec. 10 in Pinedale to consider the new restrictions. This summer it sent draft regulations back to DEQ staff for further work.

Wyoming must meet a December, 2015, federal deadline showing progress for ensuring emissions will not lead to ozone spikes. The regulations target existing sources that are operating legally, many of them considered small sources, DEQ staffers said.

At issue is Sublette County residents’ health, already considered by the Wyoming Department of Health to be impacted by  smog. Small parts of neighboring counties also may be affected.

“We progressively get more and more involved looking at emissions themselves,” said Steven Dietrich, Wyoming DEQ air quality administrator. “It’s part of that toolbox to try to reduce emissions further. We have until the end of December, 2015, to demonstrate to EPA we have reached attainment.”

Among the proposals are limits to what can be emitted, even leaked, from myriad oil and gas-field facilities such as compressor stations, wells, pumps and tanks. A key provision is what size operation falls under the new rule — currently set for many facilities at 4 tons of emissions a year or more. 

Rule applies to “only a fraction” of pollution sources

Conservationists, including the Wyoming Outdoor Council and Environmental Defense Fund, said this summer the rule would address “only a fraction” of the facilities. “… As proposed the rules fall short in some areas in fulfilling DEQ’s responsibility to ‘eliminate pollution’ and ‘enhance the air,’” in the upper Green River basin non-attainment area, the groups said.

Proposed regulations would cover 1 percent of storage tanks, 15 percent of glycol dehydrators and 3 percent of well sites with fugitive emissions, they said. It would absolve 97 percent of those wells from quarterly tests, requiring leak inspections only annually.

Since the summer, DEQ has met with some stakeholders in efforts to satisfy their worries. Among the changes, some compressor stations will now be covered by the new rules.

DEQ staffers said a handful of compressor stations – perhaps five or fewer, would be affected. “Staff has worked hard (with) all parties to put this rule package together and bring this to the Air Quality Advisory Board,” agency spokesman Keith Guille said.

Should Wyoming fail to meet the federal December, 2015, deadline, the federal Environmental Protection Agency could change Wyoming’s non-attainment status from marginal to moderate and impose more stringent anti-pollution requirements, Dietrich said. 

“If we don’t have a successful program to submit, they always have at their disposal the ability to introduce a federal State Improvement Plan,” he said. Both the state and federal government would prefer Wyoming operate its own program, he said.

Industry representatives have said, however, that the new regulations won’t work for them. They made comments this summer and also met subsequently with DEQ staff.

In 2003 Caza Rig 42, drilling in the Jonah Field, was a relatively lonely outpost. Today, hundreds of well sites dot the landscape, contributing to ozone pollution that the state seeks to stem with new regulations. (Angus M. Thuermer Jr/WyoFile)

Representatives from the Petroleum Association of Wyoming did not return repeated calls seeking comment on what they hoped from the upcoming meeting. A representative from Anadarko Petroleum Corp. did not immediately return a voicemail message Monday morning. 

Those representatives said earlier, however, that the regulations would be draconian.

“We believe this rule lacks clarity and has many ambiguities, inconsistent definitions, and onerous administrative requirements,” PAW’s vice president John Robitaille wrote the DEQ this summer. “Numerous revisions to this proposal are required to make this a workable final rule.”

DEQ has made some revisions, but whether they satisfy energy companies is uncertain.

Industry wants more time

Among the industry complaints are that a proposed Jan. 1, 2016, Wyoming deadline for implementation of pollution monitoring programs and devices comes too soon. That deadline “is not feasible considering the breadth of affected facilities impacted by this rule,” Robitaille wrote.

Anadarko Petroleum agreed. “The current date of Jan. 1, 2016 may not allow for enough time to plan for and complete the required retrofits,” company representative Chad Schlichtemeier wrote.

Nearly 300 glycol dehydrators would be affected by the new rule, Robitaille’s letter stated. It also said PAW doesn’t believe DEQ has justified thresholds required in the rule.

Myriad facilities dot Sublette County oil fields, including drilling rigs, tanks, compressor stations, pipelines and pumps. A new rule proposed by the Department of Environmental Quality would put limits on existing sources of pollution in an effort to cut winter ozone and smog around Pinedale. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Further, oil and gas operators wanted DEQ to estimate impacts to industry and also outline what air-quality improvements would result. “PAW is also interested in seeing the emission reductions that will be achieved, an estimate of the number of affected sources, and quantification/estimation of the cost to implement,” Robitaille’s letter said.

Cost to industry or others is not an element that’s to be considered when making regulations under federal clean-air laws, DEQ’s Dietrich said. In its response to written industry comments, DEQ also wrote, “It is of the utmost importance to work quickly for the benefit of human health in the UGRB. Therefore extending the compliance time frame within the regulation beyond one (1) or more years is unnecessary due to delays experienced with the rulemaking process.”

Conservationists agreed that DEQ staff had proposed worthy measures for high-bleed pneumatic controllers, separation vessels, glycol dehydrators and the control of flash emissions from storage tanks. Wyoming Outdoor Council’s chief legal counsel Bruce Pendery still wants the 4-ton threshold cut in half.

“We would like to see that lowered to 2 tons a year so a lot more emission sources are encompassed,” he said in an interview. Even though DEQ will now consider compressor stations under the new rule, components of those stations would not be covered individually, he said.

 For example, a glycol dehydrator at a well site would be covered by the new emission standards, but when incorporated in a compressor station, it would be exempt, he said.

“We’ll still raise these issues,” he said.

Sublette resident Dave Hohl also urged tighter standards.

“While the emissions from any given facility is small, the large number of these facilities result in a large cumulative volume of emissions in the basin that are not controlled,” he said in a letter to the DEQ. “In essence with a 4 (ton per year) threshold the rule accomplishes only a marginal reduction in emissions at best whether applied to older facilities, or new or modified facilities.”

Residents’ health a key issue

The Wyoming Department of Health determined in a study that ozone, or smog, already is affecting Sublette residents.

The agency last year reported an association between increased ozone levels and clinic visits. The clinic visits came during a 4-year period between 2008-2011. Clinic visits for respiratory problems were up 3 percent for every 10 parts-per-billion increase of ground-level ozone detected.

The conflict over how to bring the Sublette area in line with federal standards for ozone pollution erupts just as the ozone issue captured a national audience. As Wyoming struggles to meet federal standards, the Obama administration seeks to make those standards even stricter.

Today, the federal pollution limit is set at 75 parts per billion. The administration is taking comments on a proposal to reduce that to 65-70 or perhaps even 60.

 Obama’s administration defended the standard as a measure that would save $38 billion in health benefits by 2025.

University of Wyoming atmospheric sciences professor Dr. Robert Field uses a canister in 2013 to collect an air sample as part of an air quality assessment in the Pinedale Anticline gas field. The Wyoming Air Quality Advisory Board will consider new emissions restrictions for the area on Dec. 10 in an effort to meet federal smog standards. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

“(T)he Clean Air Act requires EPA to update air quality standards every five years, to ensure standards ‘protect public health with an adequate margin of safety’ based on the latest scientific evidence,” EPA administrator Gina McCarthy wrote in an op-ed piece for CNN Money. “So today, following science and the law, I am proposing to update national ozone pollution standards to clean up our air, improve access to crucial air quality information, and protect those most at-risk — our children, our elderly, and people already suffering from lung diseases like asthma.

“The good news is that if these proposed standards were finalized, every dollar we would invest to meet them would return up to $3 in health benefits (totaling up to $38 billion in 2025, and going up from there),” McCarthy’s piece stated.

Barrasso criticizes costs

Wyoming’s Sen. John Barrasso (R) ripped the federal initiative as the most expensive regulation ever, a phrase used in a manufacturing industry study.

“The rule is more proof the Obama Administration is turning a deaf ear to Americans who want Washington to focus on job creation,” Barrasso said in a statement. “The ‘most expensive regulation ever’ is going to put more Americans out of work and make it even harder for our economy to grow.”

He said citizens’ health would not be helped, but rather hurt, from a revised federal standard requiring cleaner air.

“And once again, the EPA is completely ignoring the very serious health impacts of unemployment that will result because of its rule,” his statement said. Republicans will do “everything possible to stop this regulation and help Americans have better job opportunities.”

Wyoming Air Quality Advisory Board
Here’s a list of the members of the Air Quality Advisory Board, their towns of residence and the segment of the public they were appointed to represent:
• Diana G. Hulme, Laramie, public
• Joel “J. D.” Wasserburger, Lusk, ranching/agriculture
• Brian Boner, Douglas, ranching/agriculture
• Timothy Brown, Green River, industry
• Klaus D. Hanson, PhD, Laramie, political subdivision

The upper Green River basin in Sublette County is bounded on three sides by mountains and is home to the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah gas fields, along with other energy developments, ranches and a wildlife- and scenery-oriented outdoor recreation industry.

Ozone pollution is believed to be caused by oil and gas operations, snow cover, car exhausts, sunlight and other factors, including clear, cold, high-pressure weather systems that trap pollutants in valleys.

The Air Quality Advisory Board will consider DEQ staff’s proposed new emission rules for existing oil- and gas-field facilities in the basin and whether to recommend the Environmental Quality Council adopt them. The Wyoming Outdoor Council wants the advisory board to advance the regulations for EQC consideration; the looming, stricter federal standards are all the more reason, Pendery said.

“Everybody has known this was coming,” he said of the stricter federal ozone proposal. “This is just going to put that much more pressure on the Air Quality Division and all of us to take steps.”

“Overall it is our hope that the Air Quality Advisory Board will give its blessing to the new proposed rule and, by doing that, move it on to the Environmental Quality Council,” he said.

“If they kick it back, we’re not going to see these regulations in 2015,” Pendery said. “From our perspective that’s too late. The health of people in the upper Green River basin needs these in place.”

Related WyoFile stories
30 years of data show wilderness water pollution, November 2014
Study finds toxins, cancer-causing air pollution at oil, gas wells, October 2014
UW air quality research goes global, July 2013
Pristine to Polluted, May 2011

Angus M. Thuermer Jr.

Angus M. Thuermer Jr. is the natural resources reporter for WyoFile. He is a veteran Wyoming reporter and editor with more than 35 years experience in Wyoming. Contact him at angus@wyofile.com or (307)...

Join the Conversation

2 Comments

Want to join the discussion? Fantastic, here are the ground rules: * Provide your full name — no pseudonyms. WyoFile stands behind everything we publish and expects commenters to do the same. * No personal attacks, profanity, discriminatory language or threats. Keep it clean, civil and on topic. *WyoFile does not fact check every comment but, when noticed, submissions containing clear misinformation, demonstrably false statements of fact or links to sites trafficking in such will not be posted. *Individual commenters are limited to three comments per story, including replies.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Let us remember it is not just Sublette County. The air pollution problem from developing oil/gas fields in Converse County is burgeoning; last winter we had severe episodes during cold, inversion days along the Platte River–emissions from the coal power plants in Glenrock & Wheatland compound the problem. These regulations should apply State-wide, giving the industry a chance to do things right as they open fields, not just after an obvious problem is out of control.
    Maria Katherman
    Douglas, WY

  2. If only Barrasso were a pulmonologist instead of a bone doctor.

    The Senator’s comments here are totally consistent with him rewarding his true constituency , the energy corporations, not the people of Wyoming. Were I the referee on this field of play instead of the EPA, I would throw the yellow flag and penalize the energy companies for Delay Of Game.

    The companies have known this was coming for many years. Still they stall and dither and deflect, up till the day they close up shop and leave us cold…the ” bust” part of that Boom and Bust. Wyoming is a Second World energy colony, exploited by the 21st century equivalent of Robber Barons and distant empires. Senator Barrasso is not helpful.

    Dewey Vanderhoff
    Cody, WY