Drillers Try to Cut Pollution in Western Wyoming

Oil and gas companies are retrofitting drilling rigs with pollution controls and taking other steps in an effort to avoid violating federal air pollution standards in southwest Wyoming this coming winter.

Last winter and spring, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality issued its first ever ozone alerts because of pollution in the Pinedale area. Officials say emissions from two nearby natural gas fields combined with unique meteorological conditions to create ozone, which is normally associated with big cities in the summer.

David Finley, administrator of the DEQ Air Quality Division, said companies in the area have been taking part in several initiatives to reduce pollution, especially from the huge drilling rigs that operate 24 hours a day.

"I believe the most active, the largest producers, the largest drillers will all participate in these programs that will result in emission declines," Finley said.

It behooves the industry to clean up its emissions because excessive ozone readings could lead to severe restrictions on their operations in the gas-rich southwest Wyoming.

The steps companies are taking include either replacing dirty diesel rigs with cleaner natural gas powered rigs or retrofitting diesel rigs with new pollution control devices.

In addition, the state has imposed a standard of not increasing overall emissions by requiring companies to reduce emissions from existing sources, he said.

"There's drilling going on daily in the Jonah field and in the Pinedale Anticline, and people are drilling new wells and creating new air pollution sources out there every day," Finley said. "But now in order to get permits for those activities they need to look around to older sources that don't have the stringent air pollution controls on them that new sources have to have."

As a result, companies are "scrambling to find older pollution sources that they can retrofit with air pollution control systems to lower emissions," he said.

Oil Pump
Oil Pump

DEQ also has required companies to have contingency plans for temporarily reducing air pollution further in the event ozone is expected to exceed safe levels on a particular day.

DEQ has been holding public meetings in southwest Wyoming about the air quality situation. It is scheduled to hold a public meeting in Pinedale next Wednesday.

Linda Baker of the Upper Green River Valley Coalition applauds the efforts.

"The DEQ has done a tremendous job in a short time of coming up with a plan to reduce ozone precursors," Baker said. "I for one appreciate those efforts very much."

But it remains to be seen whether the efforts will work.

"The ball is in the operators' court at this point," Baker said. "We'll see what they do. We'll see whether they are successful."

Southwest Wyoming is home to one of the largest natural gas reserves in North America, and it is dotted with hundreds of gas wells to supply the nation's growing demand for cleaner-burning fuel. Thousands more wells are planned.

But pollution from vehicles and equipment in the gas fields — when combined with dust, snowcover, sunlight and geography — have resulted in ozone levels on some days that rival those of big cities in the summertime.