Guest opinion: Modernizing Utah’s oil & gas oversight will help clear the air

Oil and gas air pollution is a serious problem in Utah but a new rulemaking from the Utah Department of Environmental Quality will help by modernizing and improving the state’s oversight of oil and gas operations.

This action will help clean Utah’s air, encourage responsible energy development, create jobs, and foster a robust, diverse economy. Utah DEQ is currently accepting public comments through November 15, 2017. Members of the public are encouraged to file comments.

The DEQ proposal is good, but with a few improvements the state can maximize this clean air opportunity by:

  1. Requiring operators to check for gas leaks at least twice a year at all facilities.
  2. Applying these rules to all hydrocarbons that make up natural gas.
  3. Improving transparency by including reporting requirements.

The Problem:  Utah is experiencing dangerous levels of ozone. Ozone pollution can trigger asthma attacks and worsen emphysema. Children and the elderly, are the most at-risk to feeling the effects of air pollution.

Uintah and Duchesne counties are both major centers of oil and gas production and struggle with high ozone levels, putting public health at risk. In these counties, nearly 50,000 people suffer from asthma and more than 2,100 people suffer from cardiovascular disease.

 A 2013 industry-funded study showed that oil and gas development is responsible for the vast majority of ozone-forming pollutants in the Uintah Basin, including 98-99 percent of volatile organic compounds (a primary precursor of ozone pollution).

Utahns want action. According to a recent Envision Utah survey, a majority of Utahns rate clean air as one of the most important issues for our future. Some 75% of respondents approved of measures that would yield significantly better air than we have today.

Another recent poll found that 83 percent of Utahns want federal standards that cut waste and pollution from oil and gas development to remain in place.

The Solution:  Modernize oversight of oil and gas air emissions. The Utah Division of Environmental Quality is modernizing the way it manages air pollution from oil and gas operations. Instead of making decisions about air quality on a cumbersome and labor-intensive permit-by-permit basis, Utah DEQ is looking to modernize oversight of oil and gas and set a clear and fair bar for how oil and gas operators can best protect our air. These improvements are an important step toward better air quality protectionsand reducing harmful ozone levels.

Cleaning up our air and cutting emissions will create jobs and boost Utah’s economy. More than 130 companies with upwards of 590 manufacturing, sales, and support locations – including more than a dozen here in Utah – are already working to reduce ozone-related, methane, and other air emissions in the oil and gas sector. The mitigation industry continues to grow, and Utah has only just begun to unlock its potential.

After Wyoming adopted similar ozone air standards, Jonah Energy – on of the largest operators in the area – reduced 75 percent of its gas leaks and cut costs by hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In Utah, taxpayers lost out on over $31 million in royalties from 2009 to 2014 because of wasted natural gas on federal/tribal lands. Cutting emissions and reducing natural gas waste will help increase state revenue.

According to the Outdoor Industry Association, outdoor recreation supports $12 billion in economic activity, creates more than 122,000 direct jobs, and generates more than $850 million in state and local tax revenue. Reports indicate that poor air quality is hurting this economy, and investing in cleaner air is an investment in a healthy outdoor recreation economy.

What has worked in neighboring states can help Utah. In 2012, ozone levels in neighboring Wyoming reached levels that rivaled that of Los Angeles. The state started requiring oil and gas companies in the region to inspect their facilities for harmful gas leaks, and since then, ozone has been reduced significantly.

We appreciate the Department of Air Quality’s diligence in creating these rules, and for consulting with both the industry and public health advocates to build a workable system that will help clean the air. The DAQ’s process is a model for how regulation can be high-functioning.