A must-read series: ‘Pristine to Polluted’

WyoFile has published an important, in-depth series investigating the existing air quality issues in the Pinedale area–in the face of what looks to be a new natural gas drilling boom even bigger than the last.
See excerpts below, along with links to the full stories.

Pristine to Polluted | More Wells, Fewer Emissions | Next Wave of Natural Gas

PINEDALE — State, federal and company officials admit they don’t fully understand how to restore air quality and avoid further exceedences of federal Clean Air Act standards in the once-pristine airshed of the Upper Green River Basin.

Yet the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has already begun analyzing proposals for major natural gas field expansions that will add up to 4,338 new wells in the area.

Despite significant reductions in the volume of emissions from the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah natural gas fields in recent years, the area remains prone to ozone spikes — a human health risk. Ozone spiked beyond federal thresholds 13 times this past winter, and triggered 10 state-issued alerts, warning people to remain indoors.

Ozone is best known as the main ingredient in urban smog, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Naturally-occurring ozone in the stratosphere helps protect the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. But at ground level, and in high concentrations, ozone is harmful to human health, plants and wildlife.

The federal ozone standard that is not being met today in the Upper Green River Basin is set to become even more stringent this summer. The continuing ozone problem has triggered a process under the Clean Air Act to declare Sublette County a “non-attainment” area, a designation that strictly prohibits any further deterioration of air quality.

Yet industry asserts that the BLM has committed itself to issuing a Record of Decision on EnCana Oil & Gas USA’s 3,500-well “Normally Pressured Lance” project (known as NPL) by April 2014. If federal officials attempt to meet that timeline, it would mean the industry, the BLM and Wyoming regulators have just three years to figure out how to expand natural gas development while complying with air quality standards that are not being met at today’s higher ozone threshold and slower pace of development.

How can such a feat be accomplished?

“It is a big question, and the answers are equally big,” said EnCana spokesman Randy Teeuwen.

[. . .]

Others doubt Wyoming can adequately resolve multiple air quality issues while expanding natural gas development.

“Where I come from, if you have a problem you fix the problem before you move on down the road,” said Laramie resident Pete Gosar, who is among several Wyoming residents who have advocated a slower pace of development.

Gosar grew up in Pinedale and still has family there. He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination for Wyoming governor in 2010, and campaigned on a pro-energy stance that included stringent protection of Wyoming’s other natural resources.

“This is not something to be played with. These are people’s lives,” Gosar continued. “It’s very sad to watch. In my lifetime — and I’m only 43 — we went from celebrating the cleanest air and water to, now, the worst air on occasion in America.”

Environmental groups such as the Wyoming Outdoor Council note that spiking ozone isn’t the only air quality problem in the area. Regional haze requirements are not being met, and deposition of sulfur and nitrogen compounds is increasing the acidity of some high mountain lakes, according to studies by the U.S. Forest Service.

Wyoming Outdoor Council officials insist that federal law prohibits the BLM — or the U.S. Forest Service and other federal agencies — from permitting new activities that would cause violations of Clean Air Act standards, and that agencies are obligated to regulate development of federal leases “as needed” to avoid such violations.

“What’s needed most is for people to have a holistic concept of what’s going on over there,” said Bruce Pendery of the Wyoming Outdoor Council. “It’s more than just air. The mule deer population crashed. There’s haze in the Class One areas, ozone exceedences. … Boy, we need to start doing some things differently.”

Read the full story here.

 

Pristine to Polluted | More Wells, Fewer Emissions | Next Wave of Natural Gas

PINEDALE — Natural gas operators in the Upper Green River Basin say they’ve been able to drill more wells with fewer emissions in recent years, and they can continue to maintain that trend by consolidating facilities and using advanced, emission-cutting technologies.

“Technology is key. We can make significant reductions with the right technology,” said Shell spokeswoman Darci Sinclair.

The three main operators in the Pinedale Anticline field are Shell, Ultra Petroleum and QEP Energy Co. To date, the companies have drilled 1,775 wells, and they plan to drill hundreds more in years to come.

EnCana Oil & Gas USA is the main operator of the Jonah field on the southern end of the Anticline, where it has drilled some 1,200 wells so far. EnCana spokesman Randy Teeuwen said the company will continue to drill about 150 wells per year for the next three years. Then, if approved, it will move its rigs to the proposed “Normally Pressured Lance” field (known as NPL), where the company wants to drill 3,500 new gas wells at a rate of 350 wells per year.

According to Teeuwen, the ability to achieve emissions in the NPL below even current levels in the Jonah field depends on the ability to make a seamless transition, moving drilling rigs from Jonah to the NPL field three years from now.

“Imagine, if you will, that the drilling in Jonah is complete and we don’t have a Record of Decision for the NPL. All of the workforce goes away, and the continued revenue stream for the state and county will start to decline,” said Teeuwen.

He added that without a seamless transition, the economics become less favorable for efficiencies in production and emission reductions.

Yet environmental groups and some local residents say they will very carefully scrutinize the industry’s claims of lowering emissions in upcoming planning documents.

“I think the BLM is going to have to do some serious air quality modeling to demonstrate this can be done, and provide some objective evidence,” said Bruce Pendery of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

Pendery noted that even with recent emission reductions, the development is still contributing to spiking ozone, therefore the BLM is required to impose whatever restrictions necessary to meet federal standards under the Clean Air Act. And when it comes to analyzing plans to expand development, Pendery said the BLM must consider the cumulative impact to air quality in the region.

In addition to consolidating processing facilities, another major emission-cutting aspect of the proposed NPL project will be to “electrify” the field. Rather than rely on a combination of natural gas- and diesel-fired engines to operate compressors and other facilities, EnCana has asked Rocky Mountain Power to supply 20 megawatts of power to the NPL field.

Read the full story here.

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