Ozone spikes put Sublette County on federal list of air quality violators

May 11, 2012

 It’s official: The Environmental Protection Agency says Sublette County and parts of neighboring counties are violating federal air quality standards because ozone levels have gone above the legal limit multiple times in the past few years. It’s widely recognized that the problem stems from emissions in the oil and gas industry. When you get the right combination of two types of emissions -- NOX and VOCs  -- coupled with certain wintertime weather conditions, ground-level ozone forms. Ground-level ozone is the main component of smog and can cause respiratory problems.

Residents and state officials have known about the problem for several years. But now, the federal government is stepping in. The EPA is designating Sublette County a nonattainment area, which means Wyoming will be obligated to fix the problem.

Steve Dietrich, the air quality administrator at the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality says the nonattainment designation means the clock is ticking.

STEVE DIETRICH: Once the designation is final, we have three years from that date to become attainment for the ozone standard.

BELDEN: Exactly how that will happen is still up in the air. The EPA will set certain requirements that Wyoming will have to follow, but we don’t know what those will be, because the EPA is in the process of updating them. Dietrich says if past requirements are any indication, there are a number of things the state will have to do.

DIETRICH: There will be emissions inventories that will have to be submitted – emissions inventories of any source out there of emissions. Which is something we’re already doing.

BELDEN: Plus, Wyoming may start requiring drilling companies to use the cleanest technologies available on new equipment and facilities and may call for older facilities to be upgraded, in order to lower emissions.

Dietrich notes that the state has already taken some measures to curb ozone-causing emissions.

DIETRICH: We have an offset program that’s been in place since 2008. And what that is all about is any new facility coming in has to offset VOC and NOX emissions that they’re going to create with this new project. The idea being that even though new production is being allowed to happen in a nonattainment area, you’re not creating additional NOX and VOCs above what we saw back in 2008.

BELDEN: Plus, DEQ has been encouraging industry to take voluntary measures to curb their emissions on days where ozone levels are expected to spike. Dietrich says many companies that are drilling in the area have agreed to come up with ozone contingency plans – which are measures they can take on any given day to reduce short-term emissions.

DIETRICH: It may be that certain maintenance operations will be curtailed. It may be that they reduce truck traffic to and from a facility that’s just being worked on. Or anything that they can curtail and delay from a normal operations standpoint to when we’re not in an ozone action day is what they try to do.

BELDEN: Dietrich says the state plans to continue with these measures. But the formation of wintertime ground-level ozone is a rare and complex occurrence. And DEQ hasn’t figured out how much you’d have to reduce emissions in order to solve the problem.

Dietrich says if the state doesn’t manage to come back into attainment within the allotted three years, they’ll get more time, but they’ll also have to put more stringent rules in place.

DIETRICH: The contingency plans that I mentioned earlier, that were voluntary with industry then become regulatory and so everything ramps up. We move from voluntary to mandatory.

BELDEN: The DEQ has convened a task force, composed of citizens, local leaders and representatives from the energy industry. They will make recommendations to the state about how to tackle the ozone problem, and then the DEQ and the governor will come up with a formal plan.