Across the country, energy operators are flaring or venting more natural gas at power plants on average each day than ever before. Though the practice has declined in Wyoming, volumes nationwide have surged — increasing by 66 percent compared to last year.
New data released by the Energy Information Administration revealed North Dakota and Texas are responsible for the overwhelming majority of the natural gas disposed in the country, with the two states contributing to 82 percent of the nation’s flared or vented gas last year.
As crude oil production has swelled in the U.S., companies have found it difficult to maintain sufficient infrastructure. Oil production in North Dakota’s Bakken play reached 1.5 billion barrels per day last year — that’s five times the amount produced in 2010.
A paucity of pipelines running from oil fields to processing plants can force some producers to turn to flaring, or burning off, gas. What’s more, paltry gas prices often leave producers with few other economical options. In other words, transporting the gas to market is too pricey to make a profit.
But opponents of the practice point to the ways flaring, and especially venting, can compromise the climate, air quality and taxpayers’ pockets. Federal and state governments cannot collect royalties on flared gas.
Leaks or equipment defects at facilities can also send methane and volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere. Methane is considered 84 times more potent in warming the climate than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
Greenhouse gas emissions from natural gas have eclipsed those of coal for the first time nationwide, according to a Dec. 4 report by the Global Carbon Project.
While in 2017 Wyoming ranked third nationally for volume of natural gas flared at power plants, New Mexico eclipsed the Equality State last year, according to the Energy Information Administration. Wyoming flared or vented nearly 9 million cubic feet of natural gas at power plants last year, according to administration. In 2017, the state disposed 18.4 million cubic feet of natural gas through flaring.
“You’re seeing less of a problem in Wyoming, but that’s more a factor of the production being at the level that it is,” said Jon Goldstein, director of regulatory and legislative affairs at the Environmental Defense Project.
As the country experienced an upturn in natural gas production, the opposite trend occurred in Wyoming this year, sending chills through the state’s natural gas-dependent regions like Sublette County. Natural gas declined by 11 percent, according to the state’s Economic Analysis Division.
Regulation rollback from feds
Natural gas processing and disposal remains regulated both in Wyoming and on a federal level, with an eye toward reducing the potential release of methane. But the Trump administration announced in August it would relax federal methane-emission limits, spurring a mixed response among oil and gas developers nationwide. The public comment period on the proposed changes closed on Nov. 25. The Environmental Protection Agency received over 294,000 comments.
If the EPA proceeds with a change in methane regulations, it would reverse Obama-era air quality rules that attempted to stop methane from seeping into the atmosphere.
Jonah Energy, an independent oil and gas exploration and production company with prolific natural gas fields in southwest Wyoming, came out against the federal rollback of emission regulations.
“Jonah Energy supports reasonable federal regulations of methane emissions that provide consistency and certainty covering all sectors of natural gas development to promote public confidence in natural gas as a preferred energy source and provide operators with stability in their planning and capital spending,” wrote Paul Ulrich, vice president of government and regulatory affairs at Jonah.
As it stands, Wyoming’s emission standards largely align with the federal standards. In fact, the 2016 federal emissions rule change mirrored standards first applied to the polluted Upper Green River Basin near Pinedale.
The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality monitors the state’s air quality, making sure methane and volatile organic compounds from leaks stay within safe limits.
The agency promulgated new emission rules at the tail end of 2018, while former Gov. Matt Mead was still in office. The new regulations directly reference the Obama-era federal emission standards that the Trump administration hopes to roll back.
Wyoming’s rule required new and modified oil and gas facilities across the state to meet additional emission standards and undergo regular inspections.
To Goldstein, Wyoming should take the lead in its emission reduction efforts.
“There have been efforts made by Wyoming to put more, less wasteful requirements in place,” he said. “I think there are continued opportunities for the state to do that.”