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.
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.
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.
“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.”
— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at (307) 577-6069 or [email protected]