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EPA rules on attainment status

Posted: Thursday, Dec 29th, 2011

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has deemed Sublette County, along with parts of Sweetwater and Lincoln County, to be in nonattainment of Clean Air Act air quality standards.

The decision comes a little more than two months after the Sublette County grassroots organization Citizens United for Responsible Energy Development (CURED) threatened a lawsuit if the EPA did not make a decision on the 2009 proposal for Sublette County to be designated as nonattainment.

“We’re very pleased with the outcome,” CURED Chairwoman Elaine Crumpley said, adding the group had a lot of help. “I’m so grateful for this community that has come together to believe that a few people can have a vision and make a difference.”

Since 2009, the assessment on an ozone designation for the Upper Green River Basin has taken a number of twists and turns. Former Gov. Dave Freudenthal originally filed paperwork that would have classified Sublette County as nonattainment in March 2009.

The EPA did not issue a decision, though, citing the 2008 revision to its national ambient air quality standards for ground level ozone to provide increased protection of public health and the environment. In September 2009, the EPA announced it would reconsider the 2008 standards. Therefore, the State’s recommendation was never acted upon. In September of this year, the EPA established the final draft rule of ozone standards and restarted the implementation of designations.

On Dec. 9, the EPA issued its decision, which could impact gas and oil production in the future, as the State will have to submit a plan for reaching attainment to the EPA. If not suitable to the agency, the EPA could take over air quality enforcement from the State, according to Crumpley.

The State doesn’t plan to file any more information with the EPA or fight the upcoming designation, which was recommended by the previous administration, according to Wyoming Department of Environmental (DEQ) Quality Air Quality Division Administrator Steve Dietrich.

At some point, the EPA will assign a designation to Sublette County based on how close the area is to meeting air quality standards. These classifications range from extreme to marginal, and this decision will play a large role in how the State acts toward returning the Upper Green River Basin to attainment status.

A marginal nonattainment area, for example, is expected to reach attainment within three years.

The EPA will likely use many of the same barometers it used for designating nonattainment to determine the appropriate classification.

This designation was based on five categories: air quality data, emissions and emissions-related data (including location of sources and population, amount of emissions and emissions controls, and urban growth patterns), meteorology, geography and topography and jurisdictional boundaries.

To determine the air quality of Sublette County and surrounding areas, the EPA used 2008 national ambient air quality standards over a three-year period from 2008 to 2010. The design value is the three-year average of the annual fourth highest daily maximum eight-hour ozone concentration.

Sublette County had ground-level ozone at 78 parts per billion (ppb) according to the data from the Boulder air monitoring station. Area-wide, including parts of Lincoln and Sweetwater counties, the analysis found 68,451 tons per year of oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and 58,738 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) per year.

Under the Clean Air Act, 75 ppb of ozone is the maximum amount allowed. Earlier this year, the EPA halted discussions of lowering that threshold, promising to return to it in future years.

Crumpley said she hopes the area is designated as marginal nonattainment, that way the county can sooner get back to a healthy air quality. But although Sublette County would appear to be close to reaching attainment, therefore classified as marginal, no such precedent exists, according to Dietrich.

If labeled as marginal, however, a number of changes could be mandated for oil and gas drilling operators.

Encana Public and Community Relations Advisor Randy Teeuwen said State Implementation Plans (SIP) would be filed for all nonattainment areas outlining how the area will reach attainment.

A marginal designation would require an inventory of actual emissions from all sources updated every three years, which Teeuwen said is already mandated by the DEQ. An offset of 1.1 to 1 would also be required, meaning any new or modified operation will have to reduce emissions by this ratio. This is also required by the DEQ in its interim policy for Sublette County.

Finally, the designation would impose Reasonably Achievable Control Technology (RACT) requirements on all major sources in nine industrial classifications, with oil and gas not being one of them, according to Teeuwen. Transportation and infrastructure conformity, for example, would be required to promote better health and safety for residents.

“Not much will change for new and modified sources, as the current state Presumptive Best Available Control Technology requirements are already so stringent,” Teeuwen concluded, cautioning a harsher designation than marginal could change those guidelines.

Much of these changes, like the interim policy for the county, have been part of DEQ initiatives in the county over the past two-plus years.

Dietrich said the DEQ has “been actively working with industry and the communities in Sublette County” to reduce harmful air emissions, which he says come mostly from industry in the region.

The DEQ has been working to adequately monitor winter ozone and, in some cases, summer ozone since 2008.

Along with monitoring, the DEQ has worked on a number of measures to control and reduce NOx and VOCs emissions.

Dietrich said the organization works with the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission to provide incentives and put additional control requirements in place.

For a more specific example, Dietrich points to the Jonah Field, where the DEQ has worked with many of the larger companies to switch to cleaner-running rigs and exploration equipment. Ten or 15-year-old equipment is often updated, allowing for the newest technology to reduce emissions.

These measures should help alleviate many of the possible negative impacts of a nonattainment designation to oil and gas operators, which are inevitable given new controls will soon be in place.

Still, rumblings about losses of jobs persist; Crumpley thinks this will not be an issue.

“I think it could create more jobs because we have to work toward attainment classification,” she said, pointing to the need for new science, engineering designs and other expert studies. “They’re not going to shut down for this; they’re going to try to revise.”

Either way, groups like Crumpley’s or others who either filed or hinted at litigation are happy with the decision. She’s proud of the action CURED and groups like it took. She pointed to a quote from Margaret Mead to sum up her feelings.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

For the complete article see the 12-30-2011 issue.

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