A Wyoming two step for better air regulations
Guest column by Jon Goldstein, senior policy manager, Environmental Defense Fund
— July 17, 2014
Editor’s note: On Monday the Wyoming Air Quality Advisory Board, at the request of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, delayed consideration of these new air quality rules until August 4th.
Wyoming is a national energy leader, producing more BTU’s from federal lands than every other state combined. It also has a long history of leading the nation on smart, sensible oil and gas air pollution regulations. The Cowboy State was among the first to require reduced emission completions (RECs or “green” completions) to control emissions from newly drilled oil and gas wells. It has also implemented some of the country’s best requirements to find and fix leaky oil and gas equipment.
The state now has an opportunity to continue this tradition by tightening controls on existing oil and gas pollution sources in the Upper Green River Basin. Draft rules recently released by the state show promise, and with key improvements–including expanded leak inspections and extending emission controls to compressor stations–these new requirements could again emphasize the state’s role as a national leader on oil and gas regulation.
Writing rules well is an essential ingredient to stay at the front of the pack; so is making sure that the rules are effective when applied. Currently, Wyoming’s air rules apply differently in different parts of the state, and in areas where the majority of the drilling takes place the least protective air rules apply. Wyoming has an opportunity to demonstrate its leadership again but it needs to adopt both robust air quality controls that work and implement comprehensive requirements that apply equally statewide. All residents should have the benefit of cleaner air.
There’s great potential for the Cowboy State to take a Wyoming two-step toward better air regulations. Over the next two days, we’ll explore the steps involved, starting first with how Wyoming can improve poor air quality conditions in the Upper Green River Basin (UGRB).
Tackling Wyoming ozone pollution
For several years Wyoming environmental regulators, industry and local residents have been grappling with a serious air pollution problem in Pinedale and surrounding Sublette, Sweetwater and Lincoln counties. A huge boom in oil and gas drilling in the UGRB led to harmful ozone levels breaking federal health-based limits. At times, Pinedale’s approximately 1,400 residents had to deal with smog levels rivaling those in famously polluted Los Angeles.
This oil and gas pollution has real health impacts including heightened risks of respiratory disease, especially in children and the elderly. And it’s a problem in Wyoming. A recent scientific study conducted by the Wyoming Department of Health showed that more Sublette County residents seek medical help for respiratory ailments on days with higher ozone pollution levels. In 2012, due to this unhealthy air, the UGRB was listed as a federal nonattainment area for ozone pollution and Sublette County has received “F” grades in several annual “State of the Air” reports by the American Lung Association.
To their credit, Governor Mead and his staff have tackled this problem head on. The state spearheaded a task force with local citizens and oil and gas producers to come up with a consensus plan for reducing air pollution. And the state has made good headway on implementing this plan, instituting strong air pollution controls on new and modified sources in the basin last summer, including some of the nation’s best requirements for regular leak inspections to detect and fix problems with leaky oil and gas drilling and production equipment.
The latest step could be their strongest yet, putting in place sensible, enforceable rules to reduce pollution from existing oil and gas sources in the basin. Rules that could translate into significant reductions in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) and methane pollution. This will be the first time Wyoming has implemented regulations to tighten controls on existing sources of air pollution from the oil and gas sector and their willingness to do so highlights the technical, economic and political feasibility of these sorts of smart pollution control measures.
Improvements, however, are still needed to ensure these rules are as beneficial as necessary. For instance, these requirements could and should:
- Require frequent instrument-based leak inspections. The state is currently proposing a two-tiered approach: quarterly visits at sites that produce emissions above 4 tons per year (tpy) and annual, instrument-based inspections at sites with emissions below 4 tpy. Unfortunately, based on the state’s own data of the 5,075 facilities in the UGRB, this would mean only 143 facilities (less than 3 percent) will receive the more robust quarterly inspections. These lower emitting sites may be smaller, but in aggregate they can mean a lot of VOC and methane pollution. For instance, again using state data, the 143 higher emitting facilities may be responsible for as little as 725 tons/yr of VOC emissions. Meanwhile the other 4,932 smaller sites might be responsible for between 4,932 and 14,796 tons/yr of harmful emissions – potentially as much as the VOC emissions from all the cars and trucks on the road in Wyoming. Performing these inspections more than once a year will help catch more leaks faster and therefore better reduce this harmful pollution.
- Include compressor stations that can leak harmful oil and gas pollution. The most recent state emissions inventory indicates that compressor stations emit more than 1,500 tons of VOCs per year. If the rules are not strengthened to include compressor stations, they could potentially represent the largest source of unaddressed emissions in the basin.
- Do not allow combustors that control emissions from pumps and dehydrators to be removed. These are two of the largest sources of VOC and methane pollution in the basin, and control devices are an effective tool in reducing their pollution. Once installed, these combustors should be kept in place to do their job as the state currently requires for new and modified dehydrators in the Jonah-Pinedale Anticline Development portion of the UGRB.
And it should be noted, as illustrated in a recent report from business consulting group ICF International, many of these pollution controls are extremely cost effective.
EDF will remain involved in this issue and advocate for these improvements as the state’s Air Quality Advisory Board considers these rules and later in the fall as they are expected to go before the Wyoming Environmental Quality Council.
It is good to see the state working to require common sense, cost-effective air pollution control measures across the basin. Next, the state should make them apply across the state to head off the potential for similar pollution problems before they occur.