An oil well in Campbell County flares methane, adding to atmospheric pollution and wasting a valuable public resource. Proposed new BLM rules would help restrict such waste. (Courtesy Powder River Basin Resource Council)

Guest column by Nancy Sorenson

(Opinion) – The Bureau of Land Management is meeting today in Lakewood, Colorado to discuss a proposed set of rules for methane and other natural gas waste due to flaring, venting, and leaks from federal oil and gas production. They are also accepting public comment on the proposal until April 8. These new standards are long overdue and would be necessary improvements to BLM’s management of publicly-owned lands and minerals in Wyoming and other western states.

My family owns a ranch in Campbell County that overlies federal minerals. For generations we’ve been good stewards of our land. We take that responsibility seriously as we know that our land is our ranch’s greatest asset, and we want to protect the value of that asset for generations to come. We likewise expect BLM and oil and gas companies to do their part to better protect our natural resources.

By reducing methane pollution, BLM’s proposed new standards would improve air quality on my ranch and in the region. But perhaps more importantly, the standards would improve accountability to American taxpayers — the true owners of these federal resources.

BLM’s new standards come down to simple dollars and cents. According to government estimates, each year oil and gas companies waste $330 million worth of natural gas through venting, flaring, and leaks of methane on public and tribal lands. That is enough natural gas to power 5.1 million homes and provide $23 million in royalty payments every year. With roughly half of the royalty revenue coming back to states like Wyoming, we can’t afford not to promote measures that prevent this waste. Federal mineral royalty revenue funds schools and needed community infrastructure improvements in Campbell County and across our state. Wyoming, like many states in our region, is facing strong budget cuts from revenue shortfalls. BLM’s new rules would help provide much-needed additional revenue in this critical time.

Taking these steps should not adversely affect oil and gas companies. In fact, the new rules should make dollars and cents for the company bottom lines, too. The BLM estimates the new standards create net benefits of $115 to $188 million dollars per year. These benefits include revenues for operators from the sale of recovered natural gas and environmental benefits from reducing emissions. Even with market-driven declines of production and revenue, the companies can afford to make these improvements. Our minerals can only be developed once, and we can’t afford to squander our publicly owned resources and tax revenue in good times or bad. These standards aren’t about kicking the industry while it’s down — they are about ensuring responsible development of our resources now and into the future.

BLM’s meeting follows recent updates to the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s flaring and venting rules. While Wyoming’s rules made some improvements and will require companies to better justify why they should be allowed to flare or vent natural gas, they unfortunately did not go far enough to address this serious problem. BLM’s efforts are a needed next step to prevent natural gas waste of publicly owned minerals.

We can end natural gas waste from drilling operations while putting American energy to use, generating revenue, and creating jobs — and that is what a strong final natural gas waste rule can accomplish. That’s why it’s good policy for Wyoming and the nation.

— Nancy Sorenson lives on her family ranch in Campbell County,. She is a board member of the Powder River Basin Resource Council, an organization that advocates for good stewardship and responsible development of our state’s mineral resources.

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  1. I guess it all depends on who’s doing the math. If all the flared gas is so remote from a pipeline to be economically connected, its value is zero, not $330 million. Forcing its connection would only add cost which we would all have to absorb. Dealing with these problems is never easy.

    Dave McReynolds

  2. Methane is just one gas that comes up. Benzene from thermogenic sources of natural gas is also expected & unwanted. All wells leak along the outside of the casing, but current regulations don’t address the issue, so surety bonds are released when the annulus is plugged. Unfunded mandates abound in Wyoming, where regulators are captured, and outlaws run free to pollute again.

    For production individual wells are combined into units, but environmental regulations treat each well as a point source. Unitizing fields for fugitive emissions will reduce poisons released, and improve efficiency. Leaking along the outside of the casing can be addressed, but it will be inconvenient.

    Pavillion is another name in Wyoming for “collateral damage.” If that scenario had happened in Sheridan or Jackson, a very different set of state actions would have taken place. The WY DEQ & OGCC would have instituted a Root Cause Analysis, used higher resolution tools, and not dragged their feet in rich white areas. Pavillion suffers in silence because they lack resources, and cleaning up the poor judgment of permitting drilling there in the 1st place would be quite expensive.

    Wyoming is the only state in the nation to yield primacy over drinking water standards to the EPA. Perhaps the Winters Doctrine will finally offer some water quality benefits for tribal lands, or former tribal lands, but 100 years of experience says don’t hold your breath. Most Indian water rights are paper, not wet.

    Ted Lapis

  3. The hard reality of the oil and gas industry about flared methane is the gas is an orphan of the economics. It’s either a waste product from an oil well ( along with CO2, H2S sourgas and other unwanted volatiles ) , or it is emitted in too small quantities or from unorthodox hard sources to economically capture and convey to any market. Methane is a casualty in that it costs more to manage than it is worth if you can’t simply burn it off into the sky. Insisting on fully managing excess methane will kill the larger more profitable source of it, the well itself. Flagrant Methane cannot be captured and controlled piecemeal , then be expected to pay for itself in a depressed market. Then there is the Great Unspoken Truth about natural gas wells….. they all leak , if not at first then eventually in time. Fracking a well too often results in stray gases, junk water , and other unwanted emissions – if not at first then eventually . The notion that so many fracked wells are worked so deep in the ground that problems never literally surface is a bit of a white lie. So there are no easy economical solutions about dealing with the Devil of wayward methane. That is a pipe dream …a compressor dream , a truck dream, a market dream etc.

    Back when I was growing up in Cody in the 1950’s , the largest oil field in Wyoming was 15 miles southeast of town, the vast Oregon Basin patch with its hundreds of wells. If you happened to be up on the flanks of Cedar Mountain on Cody’s west side, you could look off in the distance and see dozens of Oregon Basin wells flaring on any given night, an ocean of flamepoints. The oilmen didn’t want the gas but could not give it away , so they flared it away . They’ve always flared it away. They always vented the CO2 as well. Millions upon millions of cubic feet of byproduct were just expelled into the sky , for decades. The Husky Oil refinery across the river from Cody would on occasion burn off all its heavy waste oil and sludge, resulting in black clouds the size of summer cumulonimbus anvils that would darken a quarter of the sky. That was how the industry rolled during the Eisenhower administration…l’aissez faire all the way to the bank. This of course was before the Clean Air act and environmental reforms of the 1970’s, which were game changers. The Petrocracy is decades behind in its thinking according to new environmental realities and the spectre of climate change. When things got too ” regulatory ” here in the States, Big Oil just went to West Africa or further into the Middle East where they could still produce billions of dollars from hydrocarbons and waste products be damned. A fact finding tour of the area around Lagos Nigeria would freak most people out. If you think this problem with flaring is under control, look at a nighttime satellite image of the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. The Bakken has more sources of light than any major metropolitan area from Denver to Edmonton , Minneapolis to Boise. Except all those light sources are not residences or buildings…they are flaring gas wells. It’s also the state of North Dakota looking the other way….

    The Bottom Line is there are no economical solutions to the gas flaring or corralling waste gas and the leaks Unless And Until the consumer starts paying the full cost of its addiction to fossil fuels. Americans are not paying all the costs of their fossil fuels at the pump or the meter, or that coal fired utility . All of which is a huge argument for a realistic Carbon Tax. Or by far the better solution , a shift to using much more alternative energy.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if we didn’t have to waste a single molecule of methane. Too bad the laws of physics and thermodynamics make that an impossibility to economically engineer . And besides, the stockholders and their corporations like money too much. In Wyoming we still live under the thrall of the Hydrocarbon Hegemony and all that goes with that. We are a Second World commodity colony. Unfortunately , there does not appear to be much middleground between an unregulated l’aissez faire energy industry or no hydrocarbon revenue at all.

    Dewey Vanderhoff