The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality has cited Ultra Resources Inc. alleging seven violations of air-quality regulations at Sublette County gas well sites during this winter’s season of high ozone pollution.
A “notice of violation” — issued more than two months ago — lists facilities at five well pads and says the company could be fined $10,000 a day for each of the seven violations. In addition, the DEQ could seek temporary or permanent injunctions.
Ultra could negotiate a settlement, agency air quality division administrator Nancy Vehr wrote the company in a cover letter. Otherwise Vehr will forward the issue to the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office “requesting a suit be filed in District Court to recover appropriate penalties.”
DEQ did not provide an update on the status of the violation notice late last week. Ultra would not comment at this time, regulatory and environmental manager Kelly Bott said in a June 14 email to WyoFile.
The citations follow a winter season during which ozone in the area violated federal health standards 10 times.
The Pinedale-based group Citizens United for Responsible Energy Development complained about a lack of enforcement of air quality permits issued to area oil and gas field operators who contribute precursors to ozone pollution.
“I’m glad they finally decided to do something,” said Elaine Crumpley, a founding member of CURED. “DEQ inspectors who are trying to do their job might be glad the things they reported are finally being put forward [for enforcement action] by the DEQ.”
“The whole point is health,” she said. “We live here — we just want to breathe clean air.”
115 instances cited
The notice to Ultra states that regulators found Ultra Resources Inc. noncompliant with five air-quality permits and lists seven violations, all occurring in Sublette County. All told, inspectors documented 115 instances where Ultra ran afoul of permitting requirements, according to the notice of violation.
Most, if not all, of the facilities named are in the Pinedale Field, according to Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission information.
The notice alleges that inspectors found Ultra in violation of air-quality permits in two general ways. Inspectors found some equipment venting pollutants beyond what was permitted and discovered other equipment that was installed without a permit.
The notice alleges 31 instances in which natural-gas-operated “pneumatic process controllers” were venting pollutants continuously. The controllers regulate temperature and pressure, plus the flow rates and levels of liquids, among other things.
DEQ allows some controllers to vent some pollutants under the permits in question, but not to vent continuously as inspectors found to be occurring. Some controllers are “low bleed,” emitting no more than six cubic feet of gas an hour. Others are permitted as “no bleed,” or part of closed systems “so there are no volatile organic compound or hazardous air pollutants emitted to the atmosphere,” the notice of violation reads.
Inspectors also found 74 pneumatic controllers for which no permit had been issued, the violation notice alleges. Operating unpermitted controllers violates Wyoming Air Quality Standards and Regulations, according to the notice sent to Ultra.
Inspectors also found two 300 barrel tanks, a dehydration unit, a reboiler, two glycol pumps and a blowcase — all parts of oil and gas field operations — installed at one site without any permits. Other equipment, including another three dehydration units, were set at the site but not connected, the notice says.
DEQ director Todd Parfitt updated the Legislature’s Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee about the Upper Green River Basin ozone pollution in Gillette on May 16. He talked about “compliance rates” for air quality permit holders in the basin – oil and gas operators – and how they were “less than 70%.”
“That was a bit surprising and a little bit disappointing,” Parfitt said, “that we were less than 70% in compliance when we know what the issues are. We’ve been working on this for many years.
Parfitt did not tell lawmakers about the Notice of Violation to Ultra that he and Vehr had signed almost a month before.
After Parfitt’s comments, DEQ provided WyoFile a spreadsheet that listed 101 visits to Upper Green River sites by DEQ inspectors between Jan. 9 and March 13, 2019. During those visits DEQ personnel recorded 25 sites where they found “compliance issues,” the spreadsheet reads.
Seven of the sites on that spreadsheet are listed in the notice of violation issued to Ultra.
In the weeks following Parfitt’s update to lawmakers, Guille outlined how inspectors visited the oil and gas sites in the Upper Green River Basin armed with forward-looking infrared cameras capable of detecting emissions. The cameras’ thermographic sensors record images of otherwise invisible heat sources.
“It was important for us throughout the whole ozone season to get out in the field and see what was happening,” he said. “You can see things like volatile organic compounds,” with the camera. “You can see there’s some kind of emission. It’s a good indicator.
“At any facility, you’re going to have some emissions,” Guille said. “Our job is to ensure those emissions are within the permit allowed.”
“If there is a compliance issue, they got with the facility,” Guille said of inspectors. “They work with the facility, or the permittee, to get those addressed — as soon as possible. That’s the important part.”
Last penalty was in 2016
If levied, Ultra’s potential fines would be the first imposed in the Upper Green River Basin since 2016, according to a spreadsheet of violations the DEQ provided to CURED earlier this year.
“We’re encouraged to see the DEQ’s Notice of Violation regarding the air quality violations in the Upper Green,” Stephanie Kessler, program director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council, wrote in an email. “The Wyoming public expects accountability from our government for the rules we have in place.
“Since this [Notice of Violation] reflects a limited inspection capacity for a large area and number of facilities,” Kessler wrote, “we expect that there’s many other noncompliance issues that are not identified.”
Crumpley’s group agreed, posting in a display at a public meeting last year that the DEQ has issued air quality permits for some 4,000 facilities in the basin. In 2018, the group’s display showed, DEQ inspected 330 of those, about 8% of the total.
Of those 330, inspectors found “compliance issues” with 82, or some 25%, the group asserts. Of those 82, DEQ issued two notices of violation, CURED states. The group contends only 3% of compliance issues resulted in citations.
Seen another way, inspectors found compliance issues at 25% of the facilities they visited. “Extrapolating this rate to 4,000 facilities in the airshed, 1,000 [facilities] are in non-compliance,” the display stated.
Crumpley wants things corrected, she said, and seeks “a positive, forward-moving situation,” where operators meet permit requirements and DEQ enforces emission limits. She would see a situation in which “the notice of violation would get acted on and the industry would clean up their act,” she said. “They would have to.”
The 25% to 30% noncompliance rate “says that we don’t have enough people inspecting — they don’t hit every single well,” Crumpley said. CURED calculates that at the current rate of inspections, the average site would get visited once in 12 years.
WOC’s Kessler agreed that more inspections are important. DEQ is seeking to add a third inspector to its staff in the area. The agency hosts a review of the 2019 ozone season from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday, June 26, at the Boulder Community Center.
“We encourage the DEQ to keep it up, increase its number of field inspectors and hold operators accountable and responsible for following our laws,” Kessler wrote.
Added Crumpley, “we need more people and better equipment, not just FLIR cameras. We should be able to monitor methane — the different emissions. It’s a compliance-enforcement issue.”