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Gordon blasts federal rule to curb methane emissions

Conservation groups hail the EPA’s initiative as advancing a regulatory framework pioneered by Wyoming, while industry leaders say it threatens small operators.

An observer watches as gas operators demonstrate a flare in the Jonah field in 2005. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

by Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile

Despite sharing the common goal of addressing climate change, Gov. Mark Gordon has blasted the Biden administration’s plan to slash methane emissions in the oil and natural gas industry.

The administration earned accolades on both the world stage and across the country when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced its final “methane rule” during the 28th meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP) in Dubai this past weekend — a move that will not only help abate the growing climate crisis, but will potentially save the industry billions of dollars by selling the fuel instead of allowing the potent greenhouse gas to leak into the atmosphere, according to the EPA.

“On day one, President Biden restored America’s critical role as the global leader in confronting climate change, and today we’ve backed up that commitment with strong action, significantly slashing methane emissions and other air pollutants that endanger communities,” EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan said in a prepared statement.

But the federal agency has gone too far in its “heavy-handed” mandate of practices and technologies designed to curb methane leaks and flares, according to Gordon. The upfront expense is unaffordable for many small operators, he said.

“A majority of Wyoming oil and gas producers are not multinational corporations,” Gordon said in a prepared statement Monday. “While releasing the final rule regulating methane emissions from oil and gas facilities during the COP28 United Nations climate summit in Dubai is obvious and shallow grandstanding which might make for great theater among climate activists, the effect at home means higher fuel prices and additional burdens on Wyoming producers.”

Satellite imagery of the methane plume detected in Converse County in December 2022. (International Methane Emissions Observatory)

Gordon also claimed the environmental benefits of the rule — which would compare to cutting emissions from 28 million gasoline cars, according to the EPA — are “marginal.”

But Gordon’s condemnation of the federal action overlooks the fact that it is merely an extension of regulatory efforts that Wyoming itself helped pioneer years ago, according to the Sheridan-based landowner advocacy group Powder River Basin Resource Council.

“A big part of the final rule is to reduce flaring from new wells,” PRBRC attorney Shannon Anderson said, adding that the practice results in millions of dollars in lost revenue to the state. “Overall, the [federal] requirements should be complementary to what the state has, helping to bring more of this valuable resource to market and preventing it from being released as pollution where it is harmful for public health and the environment.”

Leaks and flares

Producing oil and natural gas is a leaky endeavor. 

Whether a drilling crew targets oil or natural gas, they’re often tapping into a geologic reservoir that contains a mix of both — along with a lot of “fossil water.” Naturally occurring methane escapes into the atmosphere while drilling a well, while coaxing a continuous well production and while transporting petrol fuels. Such releases can occur intentionally or accidentally.

Sometimes, especially when it comes to oil wells, there’s no pipeline or collection system in place to take the gas, leaving operators with two choices: vent the lucrative commodity directly into the atmosphere or flare it. Flaring is when the gas is set alight so that it doesn’t linger and create a hazard around oil and gas facilities. Flaring also reduces methane’s greenhouse implications.

“This final rule builds off of Wyoming’s own successes in reducing harmful emissions and will limit wasted methane from leak-prone equipment.” JOHN BURROWS, WYOMING OUTDOOR COUNCIL

Several conservation groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, implored the federal government to follow Wyoming’s example and push the protocols beyond the state’s mostly voluntary approach.

“Oil and natural gas operations are the nation’s largest industrial source of methane, a climate ‘super pollutant’ that is many times more potent than carbon dioxide and is responsible for approximately one third of the warming from greenhouse gasses occurring today,” according to the EPA.

Flaring and other incidental emissions first came to a head in Wyoming in the 2000s with the proliferation of the Jonah Field shale gas boom near Pinedale. Snow cover and sunlight sometimes bake gas emissions and other pollutants into ozone — a serious human and animal health hazard. The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality responded by implementing limits on flaring, and coordinated with operators to install leak prevention and detection protocols.

“This final rule builds off of Wyoming’s own successes in reducing harmful emissions and will limit wasted methane from leak-prone equipment,” the Wyoming Outdoor Council’s Director of Energy and Climate Policy John Burrows said in a prepared statement. “We see this rule as essential for spurring future innovation, saving taxpayer dollars and for creating a level playing field for methane regulation across the oil and gas industry.”

An oil well in Campbell County flares methane, adding to atmospheric pollution and wasting a valuable public resource. Proposed new BLM rules would help restrict such waste. (Courtesy Powder River Basin Resource Council)

The new federal rule is also good news for people who live near oil and gas operations, according to supporters of the measure.

“In Converse County, there is still routine flaring at many sites — this is clearly visible from our ranch at night,” PRBRC member Maria Katherman said. “We are pleased to see EPA doing more to stop this dangerous and wasteful practice. This rule is a win for rural communities throughout Wyoming.”

Small operators at risk

Oil and gas industry leaders say that, without federal intervention, they continue to reduce methane emissions while increasing production, and that the EPA’s mandates only threaten to bankrupt small producers.

There are about 300 small, independent oil and gas producers in the state, according to the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. Together, they account for about one-third of Wyoming’s production, and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue to the state.

“So it’s not a small concern for us,” PAW’s Vice President and Director of Communications Ryan McConnaughey said. “We have real concerns about the complicated nature of this and the cost that will be associated with it, and have major concerns about how it will impact the smallest operators in Wyoming.”

McConnaughey said the association is still poring over the 1,690-page rule, particularly to learn how the EPA might help accommodate small operators.

Gordon, however, has already declined some federal efforts billed as help for budget-strapped small operators. This fall, Gordon announced that the state chose to reject approximately $5 million in federal aid to close and reclaim low-producing “stripper” wells. The program, Gordon said, doesn’t compensate well owners for lost revenue and would have required monitoring for errant methane emissions without helping with those expenses.

“This approach — concocted by DC bureaucrats — shows a complete disregard for the importance of this industry to Wyoming’s economy,” Gordon said in October.

This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.


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