At the center of the dusty Pinedale-Anticline field looking over the Wind River Range, Erika Tokarz stands on Ultra Petroleum’s Riverside 9-2 pad which is home to several wellheads. Across the road, workers in hard-hats and sunglasses crisscross the plot of land with a massive tower at its center, working to drill a hole for natural gas.
AugustUltra is one of the major energy companies in the Upper Green River Basin near Pinedale — along with Jonah Energy and QEP. All these companies are required to follow certain guidelines to avoid emitting pollutants that lead to ozone. Those include volatile organic compounds, VOCs, and nitrogen oxide.
Tokarz points to one way they do that: selective catalytic reduction systems. In simpler terms, the system is several large humming tanks with exhaust coming from the top. They introduce an agent to remove nitrogen oxide from the emissions.
This is just one-way Ultra stays in compliance with the region’s emissions standards. They also monitor with a FLIR camera, which uses infrared, to detect otherwise invisible leaks. Energy companies also use everything from acoustic detectors that use sound to identify leaks to using GPS to measure gas concentration.
The Upper Green River Basin in southwestern Wyoming is one of the few areas in the country with strict guidelines on limiting pollutants from energy companies. It took years of dangerously high ozone, a pale brown smog, to finally make a change. Ozone that caused coughing, nose bleeds, and chest pain among the locals.
Dave Hohl, 74, has lived in Pinedale for fifteen years. He said the mountainside community used to be known for its clean, fresh air and suddenly that went away.
“Everything from doctors in Jackson not allowing newborns to come back to Pinedale because of the air quality to kids not being able to go outside for recess,” he said.
It turns out the basin’s conditions are perfect for winter ozone formation with reflective snow, sunlight, and nearby energy development. Before 2012, according to a report from Utah State University, the Upper Green exceeded federal ozone limits 37 times.
With a push from the community and local organizations, the Environmental Protection Agency designated the Upper Green outside out of compliance with federal air quality limits. This pushed Wyoming’s Department of Environmental Quality, DEQ, to come up with a plan to reduce the area's ozone levels.
The state put together a 28-person task force made up of industry members, locals, and environmental groups to discuss how to do it. Nancy Vehr, DEQ’s Air Quality Division Administrator, said, "It’s not something the department can do on its own. The citizens can’t do its own, industry can’t do it on its own, it takes all of us and everybody plays a part.”
Within a year, the department began adopting a number of recommendations to reduce ozone. They were integrated into updated permitting guidelines for new or modified oil and gas wells, a rule to limit pollution at existing wells, and incentives to voluntarily reduce emissions.
Vehr said the changes worked.
“So, in three years, Wyoming had decreased from a non-attainment area to an attainment area. And that’s through emissions reductions,” she said.
In other words, ozone levels were back to safe levels. Vehr attributes success to good communication among citizens, industry, and environmental groups. An Ultra official explained following these guidelines is just best practice.
Elsewhere in the country, the industry says similar regulations nationwide could increase energy prices, stifling growth — considering the restrictions federal overreach. Supporters of reductions argue initial costs will be paid off in the long-term by keeping products in the pipelines.
To be clear, the Upper Green’s standards are unique — only a small handful of states have placed similar rules around energy production.
While progress has been made, many including Upper Green River Alliance’s Linda Baker said there’s still work to be done noting that ozone levels spiked again this winter exceeding safe limits. Baker said restrictions still need to be tighter if the community wants clean air.
“Say no net gains in emissions, somehow… a slower pace of development, fewer numbers of wells per year is really the only way I can see for keeping our air clean,” she said.
Baker says she’s particularly worried about a new natural gas project that may install 3,500 new wells in the area.
Still, the positive results in the Upper Green have gotten the attention of others in the state. Wayne Lax, Vice President of the Cheyenne Area Landowners Coalition, said there’s a desire to have similar rules in eastern Wyoming.
“These standards they had in Sublette county need to be expanded to the whole state.” He said, "They’re really the canary in the coal mine of what things could be and the amount of wells that are approved or waiting approval in areas like Laramie County are in the thousands.”
There are rules on the federal level that would mandate similar guidelines for oil and gas development across the country. But they’ve been the subject of legal ping-pong in Washington, DC — in place, and then on hold, and now in place again. Just this week a court ruled the EPA will need to begin enforcement.
For now, companies nationwide will begin compliance with the regulations - regulations that look very much like what’s going on in Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin.