— by Charles and Marilyn Ham
In the last few years, 75 percent of applications to drill new oil and gas wells in Wyoming have come from just three counties: Laramie, Converse and Campbell. Those counties have more than 5,500 permitted oil and gas wells. Despite this fact, when it comes to oil and gas drilling, these counties have the most lax air quality requirements in Wyoming. This is unacceptable and needs fixing.
Natural gas has been touted as the clean alternative for power generation. This claim has some truth, insofar as burning natural gas results in fewer toxic emissions like sulfur dioxide and mercury. But, unless it is done right, oil and gas drilling and natural gas production can lead to significant emissions of volatile organic compounds that can affect human health — both directly, through exposure, and indirectly, through their contribution to ground-level ozone formation. This is what happened in Sublette County when a rapid drilling boom led to ozone levels worse than Los Angeles on some days. We must avoid this problem in other areas of Wyoming.
Natural gas also consists mostly of methane, some of which leaks into the atmosphere during all phases of oil and gas production: transmission, storage and processing. Because methane is more than 25 times as potent at trapping solar radiation than carbon dioxide, scientists estimate that leaks from oil and gas production make up about 25 percent of the warming we are experiencing today from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.
Recently, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a new rule to do something about this. EPA refers to the new rule as “a suite of common-sense requirements that will help combat climate change, reduce air pollution that harms public health, and provide greater certainty about Clean Air Act permitting requirements for the oil and gas industry.” As a co-benefit of measuring and reducing methane leaks, the rule will also reduce smog and cancer-causing pollutants.
A key provision of the proposed rule requires the control of flow-back fluids from oil and gas wells where fracking is employed. Termed “green completions,” this would put a stop to the venting of natural gas and hydrocarbon vapors during well completion, instead routing these pollutants to a combustion device.
Another provision would require compressors, pumps and valve actuators that operate on produced gas to reduce the amount of gas leaked to the atmosphere. EPA would also reduce the minimum size for storage tanks whose emissions must be controlled while requiring regular inspections to detect and repair leaks.
While EPA’s proposed rule is a step in the right direction, some elements of the rule are still less restrictive than regulations currently applied in parts of western Wyoming. In Sublette County, for example, operators are already required to inspect facilities for leaks on a quarterly basis, not once every six months as EPA has proposed. These requirements vastly improve air quality.
Technologies for complying with Wyoming’s requirements have proven effective and economical. Oil and gas producers in Wyoming continue to rank among the most productive and profitable in the country. They have achieved this even at record low commodity prices. There is no valid reason to exempt producers nationwide or in other parts of Wyoming from standards that have proven effective in Sublette County.
Sensible requirements like quarterly leak inspections are working in Sublette County where the most recent air quality data shows a dramatic improvement. It is time for EPA to extend these protections nationwide and for Wyoming to extend these protections across the state.
— Charles and Marilyn Ham live in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
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