BOULDER — An “extraordinary winter” contributed to 2019 ozone pollution in the upper Green River Basin, Gov. Mark Gordon said as he supported regulators who cited a gas-field operator for allegedly violating air quality permits.
Gordon made his comments in a press conference Thursday while fielding a question about whether the state Department of Environmental Quality is doing enough to regulate pollution near Boulder. A monitor there showed ozone pollution violated federal Clean Air Act standards nine times this winter. The DEQ cited Ultra Resources in April, alleging seven violations of air-quality permits at some of the thousands of well sites in the area.
Before addressing enforcement, Gordon pointed to meteorological conditions that formed the ozone – cold weather, little wind, snow cover and sunshine. Those combine to turn oilfield emissions, known as ozone precursors, into ground-level ozone pollution.
“Last winter, due to a set of extraordinary circumstances that exacerbated the problem, we saw exceedance (of air quality standards) at the Boulder (monitoring) site,” Gordon told reporters. “This was … sort of an extraordinary winter with late-season snow and cold weather both exacerbating the ozone problem.”
But DEQ regulators also discovered what director Todd Parfitt has called “disappointing” compliance among oil- and gas-field operators with air-quality permits. At a meeting in Boulder on Wednesday to review the pollution season, he told WyoFile that inspectors found only 67 percent of facilities they visited in compliance with air quality permits.
Regulators visited 101 sites between Jan. 8 and March 11, 2019, according to a spreadsheet DEQ provided WyoFile, and found “compliance issues” at 25 sites.
Members of Citizens United for Responsible Energy Development have said if noncompliance rates are extended across the 3,935 facilities in the area regulated by air quality permits, there could be 1,000 well sites emitting unacceptable levels of ozone precursors like volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide. Using Parfitt’s reported 33percent non-compliance rate puts the number at 1,298.
Gordon supported the DEQ and its most recent citation. “I’m happy the DEQ has taken the actions it has,” he said. “We need to make sure we enforce as much as we possibly can.”
Not everyone is ready to blame the weather. Industry needs to correct its air-quality permit shortcomings, Rep. Albert Sommers (R-Pinedale) told industry representatives and DEQ officials at the Boulder meeting Wednesday.
“The weather is going to be the weather,” he said. “One thing that concerns me is your compliance rate. That’s something you can fix.”
A member of the audience in Boulder said the winter was not unusual, even during the month of highest pollution. “March was pretty close to normal,” she said of the weather.
A DEQ graph of snow cover at the Boulder Rearing Station shows record-setting snow depths of up to about 17 inches on eight days in February and four days in March.
Parfitt told the Boulder gathering that compliance issues — which are “not something we’re all happy about” — range from paperwork problems to emission violations.
But citations are “not the solution every single time,” said Lars Lone, air compliance/enforcement program manager for the DEQ and a former lawmaker. “These are not fast processes.”
Citations must be thoroughly researched and documented, Parfitt told WyoFile. The citation to Ultra, for example, is laid out in a legal form commonly seen in lawsuits. A cover letter to Ultra said that the DEQ could refer its complaint to the attorney general’s office for court action and seek fines of $10,000 a day for each of the seven alleged violations if Ultra does not work with DEQ to resolve issues.
“We want to make it absolutely clear we’re on solid ground,” before filing a notice of violation, Parfitt told WyoFile. “That just takes a lot of time.”
DEQ also needs to be consistent in its enforcement across the state, he said.
“You don’t want to hit everything with a hammer,” Parfitt told WyoFile. “We will do a notice of violation when it’s appropriate.”
DEQ is pushing a self-audit program, Parfitt said, in which industry workers look for emission leaks and other problems regularly. The result should be that corrections are made sooner than if problems are instead discovered by state inspectors.
Citations are for egregious events, he suggested. “I want to go after the worst actors with notices of violations,” he told WyoFile.
DEQ is looking to add another inspector to the Boulder area, bringing the monitoring staff up to three persons. “We’re hearing maybe we need additional resources in the field,” Parfitt told residents. “We agree.”
Industry’s own audits covered more than 275 facilities last winter, Lone told the Boulder audience.
But Sommers pressed industry representatives to characterize the trend in leaks and emissions.
“The size of those leaks are going down,” Ultra’s Kelly Bott said in response. “We’re looking for o-ring leaks, really small things.”
Jonah Energy’s Paul Ulrich agreed. “Our compliance rate has certainly gone up,” he said. “We inspect monthly all of our facilities. We’ve seen the number of leaks … drop drastically.”
Inspection equipment is so sophisticated, said Kevin Williams of Pinedale Energy Partners, that “if there was a mouse in there and it farted, you would probably see it.
Because the violations occurred mainly at Boulder, DEQ and industry believe general operations in the upper Green River Basin are running well and programs to reduce emissions are working. Monitoring stations recorded the eight-hour ozone pollution levels above federal air quality standards nine times at Boulder, once at Daniel, but not at the three other stations in the basin.
“Have we made achievements, (done) things that have led to decreased ozone formation – definitely,” Air Quality administrator Nancy Vehr told the Boulder audience. “This is a focused area,” she said of the Boulder pollution. “We’re really now on a micro level.”
Parfitt also pointed to Boulder, downwind from and close to major development. “Our focus needs to be on the Boulder station and Boulder area,” he said.
Two emissions inventory graphs displayed by DEQ show a trend in reducing nitrogen oxides emissions between 2011 and 2018, as well as emissions of volatile organic compounds. NOx went from a high of more than 14 tons a day to slightly more than eight while VOCs declined from more than 80 tons a day to fewer than 40
CURED members, however, presented graphs from DEQ data that suggest emissions are not being contained at Boulder. Readings from the Boulder monitoring station show average “total hydrocarbons” in parts per billion trending slightly up from 2.4 to 2.6 ppb from 2012 to 2018.
Nitrogen oxides increased dramatically from 2.1 ppb in 2012 to 6.6 ppb in 2018, the group contends.
Pollution isn’t caused only by leaks, audience members said. Among the alleged violations Ultra faces are several that it installed gas-field equipment without securing required permits.
“That’s a human error, that’s not a leak — [that’s] equipment out there that’s not permitted.” said Steff Kessler, program director for the Wyoming Outdoor Council.
Ultra’s Kelly Bott would not comment on the notice of violation other than to say, “we’re still working through the issues with DEQ” and that Ultra is “taking the notice of violation very, very seriously,” and is seeking “real and meaningful changes.”
Gordon told reporters at his press conference in Cheyenne he holds out hope more research would give residents, regulators and industry a better understanding of the pollution.
“I think there is more than one reason why we’re seeing the exceedance we did see last [winter],” he said. “We need to emphasize enforcement but we also need to have better modeling. We need to have a better understanding of what’s going on there.”
Some area residents offered a different solution. “DEQ is not producing the emissions — industry is,” said former Pinedale Mayor Dave Hohl. If regulators can’t figure out a solution, “in the meantime, shut it all down.”
Life-long Boulder resident Tyler Wilson agreed. “You’re all going to be on oxygen if you don’t quit,” he said. “Let’s quit the drilling.”
WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.