Holding Back Methane: State Steps Up As Federal Regulations Relax

Sep 28, 2018

Dave Hohl is a long-time resident of Pinedale, a town surrounded by oil and gas operations in western Wyoming. In 2008, Hohl went cross-country skiing and he noticed a heavy brown haze.

"It seemed like your lungs were not... didn't feel very effective, but you just didn't feel very good," Hohl said. "I mentioned this to one of the nurses at the clinic one time. They indicated it was most likely ozone poisoning,"

Through leaks, local oil and gas operations were emitting illegally high levels of ozone. It's a toxic gas caused by methane which is 25 times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. All that dirty air was causing coughing, nose bleeds, and chest pains among local residents.

In 2013, Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality put guidelines in place for stricter controls around those emissions and the ozone level was brought down. But the guidance only helped a small subset of western Wyoming.

That changed in 2016 with the approval of nationwide Obama-era methane rules. They helped limit emissions everywhere in the country. The rules required changes like semi-annual leak inspections, a limit to flaring, and low-leak valves. All to keep natural gas from escaping. But as of this September, both Obama-era methane rules are being changed dramatically. The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) rule was weakened, and the Interior Department's was fully rolled back.

Jon Goldstein, director of regulatory and legislative affairs with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), said, "it's going to leave eastern Wyoming where 80% of the drilling in Wyoming is currently happening without the benefit of these measures."

And that's not just an issue for Wyoming. Over the next seven years, rolling back these rules would cause about 1.7 million tons of additional methane emissions to be released nationwide, according to federal numbers.

As these regulations go away, it may not be a total pollution-free-for-all for oil and gas. Two states already have their own rules limiting the pollutant: Colorado and California. Soon, Wyoming could join their ranks. The state's Department of Environmental Quality is looking to revise its guidance to include an important part of the EPA's rules: semi-annual inspections in search of invisible leaks to repair.

"The timing right now could not be better. It really is important for the state to get these finalized and have them in effect to protect Wyoming, Wyoming's air, but also Wyoming's taxpayers," Goldstein said.

Proposed Revisions To State Guidance

Wyoming's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) proposed several revisions to its P-BACT (Presumptive Best Available Control Technology) guidance outlining emission policies. The biggest change would be a requirement for semi-annual leak inspections for new or modified wells. That's a big change from only inspecting if an operation was reporting high emissions.

"We're doing this because it's the right thing to do for Wyoming under our technical analysis of all the information we have," said Nancy Vehr, the DEQ air quality division administrator.

The rule would set a baseline for companies requiring everyone to look twice a year to look for invisible leaks from components including valves, connectors, and flanges. Vehr said the state has been reliably lowering emission levels for the past twenty years even as production increases. Beginning to use this inspection method is another strategy, she said, to continue that trend and one that doesn't break the bank for oil and gas.

"We took the time to take a look at it, get the cost information, additional technical pieces and say 'Hey, is this something we can use to assure that we're meeting the health-based standards?' The answer was yes, this is how we're going to meet those," Vehr said.

Environmental Defense Fund's Goldstein said it's good timing to see these proposed requirements given thousands of new wells are likely to come online around the state in the next decade and would certainly prevent a lot of additional methane.

Oil and Gas Response

It's a windy, bright day in Converse County, with oil rigs and antelopes dotting the plains. Peter Wold, president of Wold Energy Partners, stands on his most productive well-pad, a five-acre plot with two wells. Federal guidelines already have his company doing leak inspections. He said he's fine letting the state keep that around.

"I mean one of the basic reasons is we want to sell all this gas, we're not interested in having it vented," Wold said.

Without leak inspection, natural gas could otherwise be slipping out of his hands, getting into the air releasing pollutants like methane and not be sold. To avoid this, Wold said he does double the required leak inspections annually, has no-bleed valves, and other high-end control equipment.

"As you can see out here, we've gone beyond what those regulations require because we want to do it right," he said.

Not every company goes this far. Leaks are ever-present in most operations. Nationally, the Environmental Defense Fund calculated over $2 billion worth of natural gas is lost on public lands from leaks, venting, and flaring. The Wyoming Outdoor Council calculated Wyoming loses up to $96 million of natural gas due to the same issues.

The draw of federal regulations was that lost resources could be recouped with better technology - in other words, the cost would pay off. But the Trump Administration's Interior Department used a different equation and found it would cost industry more by not including the global social cost of methane. In its own revised methane rule, the reduced compliance and implementation costs would even save companies nationwide around a billion dollars over the next decade. For Wold, he's happy to see the state take charge.

"Wyoming has a history of being ahead of the feds in the development of regulations to protect the environment," he said. "The emissions regulations that are being proposed now are as good or better than what the EPA regulations are."

And state control is just what the Trump Administration wanted in rolling back its own rules, according to revisions. New Mexico and California attorneys general have already sued the federal government on rolling back the Interior Department waste prevention rule. Wyoming DEQ's decision on revised state guidelines will be made in November.