Sublette County is closer to the illustrious distinction of being the only place in the state – indeed almost the entire intermountain west – that does not meet federal standards for ozone pollution.
Last Thursday, Gov. Dave Freudenthal submitted a recommendation to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the agency should designate Sublette County as an ozone nonattainment area.
“It is unfortunate that we have to make this recommendation,” he said in a press release. “But it is a necessary step.”
For almost four years, the county’s anomalistic winter ozone has been the subject of intense scrutiny. Last year, an EPA-approved monitoring device near Boulder detected an eight-hour average of 122 parts per billion (ppb), well over the federal standard of 75 ppb.
The EPA now has a year to establish the formal nonattainment boundaries. Then the state has three years to develop an implementation plan “which are a series of steps to return to compliant conditions,” said Dave Finley, Air Quality director at the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ). “We then have a period of six years to demonstrate that the air quality has returned to compliance with standards.”
Much of the attention will be placed on natural gas production in the Jonah Field and the Pinedale Anticline.
Energy development in those areas is considered to be the county’s top ozone culprit. That’s because energy development is a major source of two primary ozone precursors.
Ozone is formed when nitrogen oxides (NOx) – engine exhaust – and volatile organic compounds (VOC) – vapors from petroleum products – are “cooked” by sunlight that is enhanced by an uninterrupted snow cover. If the NOx and VOC are concentrated by a strong inversion – a shallow layer of stagnant cold air trapped near the ground – the concoction produces the hazardous pollutant ozone.
In order to eliminate ozone exceedances in Sublette County, the DEQ and EPA will have to reduce the amount of NOx and VOC, and that might affect the area’s gas production.
“It’s incredibly important to the economy of this state,” Freudenthal said of the energy industry, adding that the most extreme solution would be field development reductions. “You can’t rule that out,” he said. “It is a theoretical possibility.”
For years gas producers have been working to reduce emissions. Whether burning VOC, building pipelines to reduce truck traffic, implementing contingency plans during forecasted ozone days or converting drill rigs from diesel to natural gas, energy operators have participated in both mandatory and voluntary measures.
Other than two days last month where operators implemented contingency plans that halted some operations, energy companies have neither slowed nor stopped their activity. And the prospect of doing so with new attainment rules is daunting.
“It would take several days minimum to shut the Jonah down,” EnCana Community Relations Advisor Randy Teeuwen said. “It would take at least as long to bring it back up, so shutting down production would be a very, very costly and very serious move if that were to happen.”
Teeuwen said even though his company has worked diligently to reduce emissions, additional costs from more regulations could impact EnCana’s future in Sublette County.
“As you consider the cost of drilling wells, the price of natural gas … and the associated cost of reducing air emissions, it becomes a very serious question in terms of the value sheet,” Teeuwen said. “Our investors – like any other business – expect us to make a profit.”
Ozone’s last stand?
Until winter ozone was discovered in the Upper Green River Valley (UGRV), scientists thought the pollutant was relegated to large urban areas during summer months.
The finding was a stunning revelation to many scientists and an aberration to many long-time residents. Hundreds of miles from the nearest big city, Sublette County had some of the county’s cleanest air.
The next closest ozone nonattainment area is Colorado’s Front Range, which is home to 3 million people. Not even Utah’s Wasatch Front is nonattainment for ozone.
If Sublette County is designated nonattainment by the EPA, it will be a first for the state.
Many residents consider the Governor’s nonattainment recommendation as a pathway back to better air standards.
In a press release, the Pinedale-based group Citizens Untied for Responsible Energy Development (CURED) called the Governor’s recommendation “a major step toward ensuring energy development does not unfairly compromise their health and that of their children.”
The group also cited a recent University of California, Berkeley, study that showed long-term exposure to ozone is associated with an increased risk of death from respiratory ailments.
CURED says its aim “is to protect the region’s air, water, lands and public health.”
And while it believes “energy development is important to Wyoming … it should be done in ways that adequately protect citizens basic rights to clean air and clean water.”
CURED member Rod Rozier explained, “We support an aggressive solution to lowering emissions,” saying the federal government has a “big hammer” as a tool to solve the problem.
The federal solution
“Today is the first step in the federal process,” Finley said last Thursday in a press conference. “The federal process is something we will pay attention to but … we will not wait for this process to bring areas to attainment.”
There is nothing speedy about the federal process.
After the Governor’s initial recommendation, the fed has until November 12 to agree or modify the designated area according to Kerri Fiedler, EPA environmental engineer.
Beginning on Nov. 12, the EPA will hold a 120-day public comment period. The final designation will be made by March 12, 2010.
Then the state has until 2013 to submit a plan for attainment where there is another public comment period. If the EPA accepts the plan, it becomes federally enforceable. If the federal standard were to be moved to 65 ppb, the entire process would start from scratch according to Fiedler.
A moving target
Sublette County’s ozone is very fickle. It only appears when conditions are perfect. When it does, it’s localized and lasts for relatively short periods of time.
Studying it is difficult at best and this year’s weather conditions have not been ideal for its formation. CURED also cites the slowing economy and an involuntary slowdown due to lower gas prices as a possible reason for, thus far, an ozone-free winter.
But 2007 saw zero high ozone episodes and only a year later levels of 122 ppb became a primary factor in the Governor’s decision to recommend nonattainment.
Add to that an anticipated economic recovery, and the surface of this complicated issue has just been scratched.
Ultra’s Belinda Salinas says her company is expecting to increase its rigs on the Pinedale Anticline from eight this year to 16 in 2010. It is also preparing to operate a new liquids gathering system that will dramatically reduce truck traffic and hopefully offset the additional emissions of a doubled rig count.
While Salinas admits nonattainment could halt work, she thinks her company has worked hard to achieve the cutting edge of emissions control.
But the question is: What will the operator’s pre-nonattainment emission reductions mean when the federal government deems the UGRV nonattainment?
And what will that mean to the residents of Sublette County?
While many metropolitan areas continue to thrive under nonattainment, it’s hard to pin down exactly what that designation will mean for a small, rural county.
Like the problem it attempts to fix, nonattainment in the UGRV is playing out to be ghostly, controversial and fickle.
But one thing is certain: The process of devising an attainment plan will likely become the next coliseum in the struggle over Sublette County’s air.
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