More questions, louder voices on oil and gas industry
by Casey Dean, Pinedale Online!
June 25, 2008
There has been a long presence of drilling in the valley, but as the impacts of the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah Field grow closer to Pinedale, local concern has increased.
“In the beginning … it was a slow pace and it was out in the desert – it was away from the community,” Linda Baker of the Upper Green River Valley Coalition said. “And it did contribute to the national energy portfolio. People were comfortable with it 24 years ago.”
However, Baker sees the combination of political expediency to drill, better technology for efficient extraction and unprecedented gas prices as “the perfect storm” in the form of a boom like Pinedale has never before experienced.
“This is not just out in the desert; this is not just a little footprint. The level of concern has risen with the rate and pace of development,” Baker said.
This boom’s effects have become the topic of more and more conversations in recent months, which have in turn emboldened more people to speak up, a phenomenon several community members noted.
“Within my immediate circle of friends I’ve always heard concerns, yet I think in the last three years, I’ve heard more … not only the number of people, but the diversity of people,” Mary Lynn Worl, long-time Pinedale resident, said.
Apparently triggered by this winter’s ozone advisories in addition to prior dialogues, increased resentment has been expressed in the form of letters to news sources, public forums, sit-ins and interest groups.
“I think a larger portion of people that would not normally have spoken out have become concerned because of the health issue,” said Elaine Crumpley, retired science teacher and self-titled “Sublette County Breather.”
More often than not, when Pinedale citizens discuss the issues revolving around the gas fields, they return to the issue of the unknown. It is common knowledge that the footprint of extracting the precious oil and gas from beneath the mesa is significant, and that health impacts are also an upshot of the industry. However, what citizens are questioning now is why Wyoming’s air quality was allowed to reach new lows, how they will be affected, what the major companies will do to remediate their presence and how to get answers.
Deena McMullen, Senior Communications Advisor for Shell Exploration and Production Co., recognizes that the dearth of dialogue between community members and Industry is a source of frustration for locals with questions.
“We’re aware of the concerns and we think that it’s important that people understand what’s going on out there and we want to facilitate those dialogues,” she said.
She would not say that public opinion has shifted in the area.
“There has been a shift in concern, but not necessarily in public opinion,” she said. “There are more vocal people. We try to reach out to those folks, too.”
Baker and others are making particular demands for accountability, namely from Industry and the Bureau of Land Management.
“There are many ways in which public concerns can be addressed and we can all work together in civil discourse … to hash out these problems together,” she said.
Some of the conversations have come together to create a new atmosphere in the oil and gas industry of Pinedale.
The BLM is reviewing a plan for 4,400 new rigs in the Pinedale Anticline. What impact would the proposed wells have, even if Industry implements all the latest technology?
BLM pledges activity in the area will be subject to more strict regulations, Industry insists emissions will actually decrease with the escalated activity.
UGRVC takes the position that BLM should also strengthen mitigation measures and people are asking how the natural gas footprint can shrink.
McMullen said Shell would soon release information to the public explaining just how it is that 4,400 more wells will release fewer emissions. She reports that Shell will retrofit half its rigs with a new catalytic converter by this winter, which should yield fewer emissions from current and proposed rigs.
Shell also has plans for the steps after drilling, which McMullen says is the most damaging facet of natural gas extraction and production. Shell will implement a liquids gathering system that will reduce traffic pollutants.
“The less handling you have, the less trucks you have on the road, the less dust,” she said.
“Out here going towards the Mesa is just like a freeway – big huge trucks constantly going out to the Anticline,” Crumpley said.
Encana Oil and Gas is also currently testing a plan to reduce traffic and handling through what Randy Teeuwen, community relations adviser, called a facilities consolidation plan.
“Our overall goal is to achieve a near-zero emissions footprint in the Jonah Field … Now, we know that’s not possible, but we’ve got a plan that we’re working on. It’s a very expensive plan to implement,” he said, but more details about how exactly Encana would limit its contribution to the ozone problem were involved or unavailable.
Like Shell, Encana has a short-term timeline for the improvements planned.
“We are not interested in doing this over many years – we’re interested in doing this as soon as possible. Our goal is within the next year to be real close to that near-zero goal,” he said.
That change should not be easy to miss.
“From where we have been, or even where we are now, approaching near-zero will be a dramatic improvement,” Teeuwen said.
What are the companies doing now aside from the new 4,400?
“I think most of the operators are trying. I think the big companies are not trying to destroy the environment, and they’re getting pressure from the very top to get that precious resource out,” Crumpley said.
Teeuwen said Encana has been aware of volatile organic compound emissions and has been working to alleviate them for several years.
“Once the gas comes out of the ground, it goes to production units, and that’s really where there’s the most opportunity for VOC emissions,” he said. “About four years ago, we started addressing the air issues by [pioneering] what we call flareless flowback,” which eliminates flaring, recycles used water and sends condensate out of the county to be used as crude oil. Encana is also testing dual fuel engines to install in the future, Teeuwen said.
McMullen said the retrofitted catalytic converter, which Shell hopes to install on half (four) of its rigs by this winter, is “looking very promising.” Furthermore, despite having no responsibility to control the emissions of drills that were grandfathered in, the company is “trying to lessen our emissions on those sites.”
Teeuwen said Encana has installed oxidation catalysts, which reduce VOC emissions, and 10 of their 11 drilling rigs in Jonah have been “fit for purpose,” or retrofitted. He added Encana has the latest technology, iron roughnecks and derekmen and natural gas engines.
“The advantage to the natural gas engines is that they reduce NOX emissions by 90 percent compared to traditional tier 1 diesel engines [non-road engines under 50 horsepower],” he explained.
Community members are still having trouble finding all the data they want. Where does the condensate from flareless flowback go? What are all the chemicals throughout the process? What are their effects? What happens to materials injected back into the earth or left in reserve pits? And most recently:
What is known about the health impacts of drilling in Western Wyoming?
The effects of elevated levels of ozone, NOX and VOC emissions are common knowledge, and numerous studies have been supported regarding the emissions of natural gas extraction in the Western states. However, there is no local data compiled yet, no numbers to address the fear that air quality levels have unleashed.
These effects have not been much of a consideration in past medical diagnoses locally.
“Never before have I had to include ozone as a differential diagnosis. Never have I had done that in my 30 years in Pinedale,” said Leslie Rozier, a nurse practitioner at Pinedale Medial Clinic.
The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a project that analyses the health impacts of chemicals used in natural gas extraction and production, has a database of chemicals with adverse health effects used in Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Washington and Wyoming. The non-profit organization has compiled lists of the products and their effects across the five states.
“You certainly can extrapolate the research to another area that uses similar techniques or has a similar geological formation and make those connections. It’s not hard to connect the dots with all the chemicals that are being used,” Worl said.
TEDX reports the use of potentially hazardous chemicals as consistently higher in Wyoming than other states.
There is no way, however, to pinpoint ozone or noxious emissions as the principal or only cause of any individual example of the many health effects listed on the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.
“You can only postulate,” Rozier said.
Teeuwen said estimates of any sort are best kept behind closed company doors. To estimate the amount of harmful emissions would be inaccurate and fleeting, he said.
“Whatever estimates we have are probably best kept internally because … they are estimates and I don’t know how accurate they would be as far as being able to tell the public,” he said. “The good news is that it’s going down all the time,” he added.
Though there are no studies of the specifically local effects to inform the public or Industry, a health risk assessment is in progress (noxious air study). It comes after local officials and community members wrote a letter to Governor Dave Freudenthal requesting a health impact assessment.
What are the regulations on companies drilling in the Upper Green River Valley, and how do they differ from other states?
One prevalent concern regarding ozone, emissions standards and air and water quality levels is how they are controlled.
“Other states have these regulations. So why do we have to demand a [health impact study] when we know that there will be effects?” Rozier asked. She said the results will not be a surprise and that the study is simply a tool to prompt the implementation and observance of stricter environmental protection regulations.
However, all states are already under federal air and water quality standards established by the Department of Environmental Quality.
“We have to meet the same regulations as any other state,” Wyoming DEQ public information officer Keith Guille said.
Guille said comparing regulations between states is not simple, and requires research. He did point out that the state of Wyoming has led the way in some air quality guidelines. Wyoming DEQ Air Quality Administrator Dave Finley said in talking with his colleagues across the nation, Wyoming has a strong program.
“It’s my understanding that the Wyoming oil and gas air pollution regulation system is one of the most stringent in the country,” he said.
Guille said Wyoming also places regulations on water quality that other state and even federal programs do not include.
How can the pace of development be managed to satisfy everyone?
Whether new standards are impressed upon the Anticline and Jonah field or not, it is clear drilling will continue. What seem to be of greatest concern are rate and magnitude.
“It’s not like ‘we don’t want any drilling.’ It’s just the pace of the drilling, the magnitude of drilling without some forethought to some of the potential impacts,” Worl said.
Even McMullen conceded it appears to be a paradox.
“How do you develop natural gas a the same time as lessening emissions?”
Some groups and individuals think that is achievable through phased drilling.
“Everybody uses natural gas. We need natural gas,” Crumpley said. “We need to slow it down, do it correctly. Regardless of what they say, they are not,” Crumpley said.
What they say is that they’re not to blame.
“The only way that that’s going to happen is when the American public stops requiring so much energy,” Teeuwen said. “The American public needs to take responsibility for how much energy we use – we’re all responsible for this. That’s what’s going to determine the pace of drilling in this country.”
There is something else the Sublette County public can do, Baker stressed. The BLM will release an Environmental Impact Statement at the end of June, at which time the public will be given 30 days to protest it. Then the Record of Decision on the Resource Management Plan will be released again with 30 days for public comment before it is finalized.
How can we get answers?
Aside from the speed of development in the Pinedale area, individuals and several groups are concerned with accountability and secrecy.
CLOUD – Citizens Learning Ozone’s Unhealthy Destruction – convened in May to host a public forum with experts. The crowd heard and asked a plethora of questions regarding the products used in natural gas and oil extraction, production and transportation and their effects on health and the environment. Many were left unanswered by the end of the evening, and the event’s organizers say they still are not satisfied with responses – or silence – from Industry.
“Folks are very energized and they’re hitting the ground running,” Baker said. “There is a lot of discussion within the community about how best to proceed.” Baker said that one of the intriguing aspects of this conversation is that it is ever evolving. However, she doesn’t see much evolution in the agencies responsible for organization, regulation and mitigation. She has a list of unanswered questions for BLM, which is the focus of her work with UGRVC.
For example, she said the BLM failed to mitigate a 46 percent decline in mule deer on the Anticline over a five-year period. These populations have been displaced – not killed – as a result of increased activity in that habitat.
“The BLM absolves itself from any responsibility for regulating emissions that contribute to decline in air quality,” she said, adding that while the state government cannot control the number or pace of wells, the BLM can.
“The BLM is totally, just washing their hands of a responsibility to respond to public concerns. Because there are so many public lands in Sublette County, that is unconscionable,” Baker said. The only change she has observed in BLM’s transparency is through Environmental Impact Statements, which the BLM has revised in response to public comment.
“But since that time, unless you go down to the BLM office and specifically ask for a meeting with certain folk, they’re not forthcoming,” Baker said. “Times have changed and it’s time that they become more publicly involved.”
She also urges the public’s involvement with the BLM. Once the comment period on the Resource Management Plan is closed this summer, the only remaining option for changing the development and mitigation in the Green River Valley is litigation.
“It suddenly gets to the point where there’s so many issues and I don’t think people think we’re getting an adequate response from agencies responsible for regulating and fixing the problems,” Baker said.
In response, some new community groups have emerged and existing organizations have evolved. The Upper Green River Valley Coalition advocates responsible development and environmental protection and is welcoming more new members than ever before.
More recently. CLOUD hosted its first forum.
“Coming together we were going to have a stronger voice. It helped bring people together and to share information,” Worl, an organizer, said of the event. Members of CLOUD are now working on individual projects, ranging from planning another forum to writing letters to representatives and senators.
Laurie Latta, Director of the Sublette County Community Partnership, a coalition between Sublette County, its towns, Industry and University of Wyoming, received the support and funding of the Sublette County Commissioners to host a second forum late this summer before conditions become ripe for another ozone alert.
“The commissioners decided they wanted to fund it … they don’t have a dog in the race as far as strong environmental or Industry concerns. I think that’s the most unbiased way we can do it,” Latta said.
This second air quality forum will also entail a health impacts component. Latta is collaborating with the Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources and the University of Wyoming Helga Otto Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources to host ozone expert Dr. Robert Field and other health officials.
“I would like to see a continued dialogue to continue to bring information to the forefront and have open communication with all the parties involved,” Latta said.
Meanwhile, Shell is trying to determine if a public forum is the best way to foster an environment of dialogue, but for more specific queries, McMullen encourages people to either call her personally (303-842-6373) or submit a message through their website.
“What we’re trying to do is always welcome folks coming to us to get information,” said McMullen. She said Shell is still trying to determine the best way to reach the general public and be available for questions. It has joined forces with Questar and Ultra to provide tours of their activity on the Mesa. Last summer, over 200 attended Shell tours, McMullen said, and this year, tours will be hosted twice daily for two weeks each month. Encana also offers tours.
Crumpley, formerly a Pinedale science teacher, decided to bring a group to the Pinedale Anticline without tour guides this spring. She led a sit-in at a rig on the Anticline to prepare for a visit from the Department of Environmental Quality when students suggested it. At the “peaceful protest” on May 4, approximately 50 people converged with signs, songs and speeches urging the Industry to act more responsibly on public land.
On June 5, several Pinedale citizens were invited to speak at the annual Western Organization of Resource Council meeting in Jackson Hole, where they collaborated with members of other communities facing the same development.
“I think it’s been a natural evolution. As more folks are becoming involved, they’re looking for partners. They look to see who’s already been working on the issues they’ve been concerned about,” Baker said. There has been an influx of partners in the UGRVC, she said. “If people think their needs can be met by joining another organization or forming their own organization, more power to them,” she said.
What are some of the more long-term concerns and what is happening with them now that health is the hot topic?
Though this spring’s ozone warnings are considered a catalyst for more and louder voices of concern, it may have distracted a bit from older concerns, like wildlife and socioeconomics.
“That in some ways is diminishing people’s concern for the wildlife and some of the other impacts – socioeconomic – that have been felt by the community,” said Worl of the ozone levels.
Crumpley said that though the boom has largely benefited employees, the inflated cost of living remains a challenge for some who benefit less from the industry, leaving the community divided for the future and raising yet another question.
“Poor lands make poor people and poor people make poor lands … when they’re gone, what are we going to do?” Crumpley said.