Massive Wyo. drilling proposal sparks concerns about air quality

Posted: Mar 7, 2013

Written by

SCOTT STREATER, Greenwire
Pinedale anticline

A coalition of conservation groups is urging the Obama administration to ensure that a proposal to build one of the nation's largest natural gas fields in southern Wyoming adequately protects the region's already poor air quality.

In comments submitted to the Bureau of Land Management, the groups say they have identified shortcomings in the draft environmental impact statement (EIS) released last year for the Continental Divide-Creston Natural Gas Development Project, which over the next 15 years proposes to add nearly 9,000 natural gas wells covering 1.1 million acres of mostly federal land in Carbon and Sweetwater counties in south-central Wyoming.

A final EIS is not expected until summer 2014 (Greenwire, Dec. 7, 2012).

The draft EIS is open for public comment through tomorrow.

The groups, led by the Wyoming Outdoor Council, Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council and others, are mainly concerned with emissions that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone.

They note in the 31-page comments submitted yesterday to BLM that the massive Pinedale Anticline oil and gas field in the Upper Green River Basin west of the Continental Divide-Creston project has struggled with air pollution. U.S. EPA last spring declared the entire basin in violation of the federal ground-level ozone standard.

They say in the comments, and in a separate 50-page assessment of BLM's draft EIS conducted by Megan Williams, a Colorado-based independent air quality expert, that the agency underestimates project emissions and does not adequately consider the impacts of ozone on the Upper Green River Basin.

The groups also criticized BLM for what they say are failures to provide adequate mitigation measures in the draft EIS to control fugitive emissions of pollutants from leaks in valves and other equipment.

"With a project this large, and this close to an existing area of unhealthy air pollution, it is imperative that the BLM gets this right," said Jon Goldstein, EDF's senior energy policy manager in Santa Fe, N.M. "The BLM must ensure that it takes every measure it can to protect air quality, including doing some common-sense things like detecting and controlling pollution leaks from equipment."

Goldstein and others note that the area has a history of oil and gas development, and that they are not opposing development in the area in general. But they want to see BLM address the air quality concerns, and they recommend better wildlife habitat protections and a greater emphasis on directional drilling to reduce the number of well pads.

"If the above practices and procedures were fully applied, oil and gas development could occur in many areas of Wyoming, and in a way that makes the social and environmental impact of this activity acceptable to many citizens," the groups conclude in their comments.

Mark Ames, BLM's project manager for the Continental Divide-Creston proposal in Rawlins, Wyo., said the agency is confident that its review of the project, which includes input from agencies including EPA, will cover all concerns raised by the coalition and others during the public comment period.

"We felt comfortable that if any impact can be mitigated, it will be, and if there are any impacts that cannot be mitigated fully, it will be disclosed to the public through the [National Environmental Policy Act] process," Ames said. "I can assure you it's going to be thoroughly reviewed before anything is assigned."

Extensive emissions inventory

BLM has worked to balance concerns about air quality impacts with expanded oil and gas development in the region.

For example, BLM in September approved a plan to provide electric power to run thousands of oil and natural gas compressors in an effort that federal regulators and industry leaders say will significantly reduce air pollution across southwest Wyoming (EnergyWire, Sept. 6, 2012).

And industry representatives say companies have taken a lot of steps to reduce emissions, including using electricity and natural gas instead of diesel to run equipment, significantly reducing emissions.

"We have to comply with all the rules and regulations, both the EPA's and the state of Wyoming's. So the companies use natural gas in the drilling rigs rather than diesel, and most of the vehicles in the fields are going to natural gas as well," said Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming in Casper. "They've done a lot of things to cut back on the emissions, and they will continue to do so in the future because the regulations will continue to get tighter."

As for the Continental Divide-Creston project, first proposed by Houston-based BP America Production Co. in 2005, it's expected to create as many as 2,500 jobs and more than $9 billion in county property taxes and federal royalties on natural gas and gas condensate production over the life of the project, BLM said.

The gas field is projected to produce more than 12 trillion cubic feet of natural gas over the 40-year life of the project, which is enough to heat as many as 3 million homes a year.

BLM began public scoping on the multivolume draft EIS, which includes an air quality technical support document and appendixes covering thousands of pages, in early 2006. It took more than six years to complete.

To gauge the impacts of the Continental Divide-Creston expansion project on regional air quality, BLM prepared a photochemical grid model for far-field ozone analysis that included the most extensive and up-to-date emissions inventory in Wyoming, according to BLM.

The result: Projected project emissions met the federal ozone standard.

"The modeling that was used for this [project] was some of the most in-depth modeling for any of our projects so far," said Ames, the BLM project manager.

But the conservation coalition members say more study is needed from BLM.

"I believe we have to do a much better job of protecting local residents and the people who are going to be living and working in and around this development," said Bruce Pendery, program director and staff attorney for the Wyoming Outdoor Council. "Wyoming citizens have learned some important lessons in recent years from the problems that have arisen in the Pinedale area and elsewhere, including many unanticipated impacts related to these mega field developments."



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