Correction: A previous version of the article incorrectly stated the DEQ setback regulation is 500 square feet. That regulation is imposed by the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission and is a 500-foot distance. The error is due to a reporter error. The Tribune Eagle regrets the error.
CHEYENNE – Last fall, the Cheyenne Area Landowners Coalition and Earthworks found multiple instances of leaking oil and gas facilities in Laramie County by using infrared cameras. The parties released videos of the leaks on YouTube last week in an effort to make those concerns known to the public.
In a news conference presenting the videos Tuesday, Cheyenne Area Landowners Coalition member Wayne Lax alleged these facilities released harmful fumes in Laramie County, such as methane and volatile organic compounds. According to Lax, the emissions contained carcinogens like benzene, and the companies failed to use the best practices in oil and gas production.
“While they are hazardous pollutants, the gases are visually undetectable without the equipment that we used to record this,” Lax said. “If the oil and gas infrastructure equipment isn’t operating properly, leaks can degrade our area’s air quality. Laramie County’s oil and gas development ... is intermingled with neighborhoods and subdivisions, and therefore, safe and effective operation of these wells is really, really important to protect public health and safety residents.”
The local coalition, backed by the Powder River Basin Resource Council, sent a letter in December to the Wyoming Department of Envir- onmental Quality, asking for an investigation into the leaks. However, the groups recognized that not all the leaks identified are in violation of current regulations.
The complaints have yet to receive a response from DEQ. But Public Information Officer Keith Guille said the department is aware of the allegations and has completed an investigation. DEQ will be responding to the parties “in the near future,” as the results have not been finalized, Guille said.
But looking at the bigger picture, Earthworks Southwest circuit writer Pete Dronkers said, “None of this should be legal.”
The five videos released on YouTube – part of a collection of about two dozen videos total – show fumes leaking from the operations of both Kaiser Francis Oil Company and EOG Resources in Laramie County. The clips were filmed on a FLIR Gasfinder 320 infrared camera, which Dronkers said is the industry standard for detecting such leaks, both by regulators and industry.
Four show leakage at the facility operated by Francis Oil, with the other showing leakage at EOG’s site. One video from Francis Oil shows tank vapor emissions, which Dronkers said are “real problematic.” Instead of flaring, or burning off the gases, the gases were simply vented into the air.
Dronkers said that venting releases a more harmful methane into the air, while flaring changes the methane into carbon dioxide.
Neither EOG Resources or Francis Oil responded to requests for comments Tuesday.
“DEQ does not actively go out there and inspect these things very often, so we’re trying to get more inspections going and more solutions to the leaking problem,” Dronkers said.
Those problems have a negative impact on the environment, he said. But Lax added that the consequences are real for residents in Laramie County who live close enough to such operations.
“There’s a lot of people out here with livestock; there’s cattle, there’s horses, and they’re all in the range of this stuff, in the land near these leaking facilities,” Lax said. “And not only that, we’ve had residents that have had lung problems and related illnesses, extensive ones, and it tends to be in specific areas. But it’s so widespread around the county that it can affect a lot of people. So you’ve got health problems related to the air, and also the livestock are dying and sick.”
To help mitigate those issues faced by residents, Dronkers suggested increasing the setback distance, strengthening leak detection and charging higher fines for being noncompliant.
While the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission requires a 500-foot setback to separate oil and gas facilities from farms or residential areas, he said scientific research has shown that 2,500 feet is safer for neighboring residents.
“If you’re going to produce oil and gas, you’re always going to have waste streams of some sort, whether that be produced water or gas streams, or even solid waste, in some cases. There’s always going to be that, but you have got to minimize it as much as possible,” Dronkers said. “And we know that there are technological fixes for this that aren’t that terribly expensive, so we have to change the regulations that allow this stuff to be legal.”
On the other hand, Petroleum Association of Wyoming President Pete Obermueller said innovation in the industry has led to a decrease in both leaks and emissions in recent years, and that DEQ is fully equipped to deal with any current problems.
“We believe the personnel with the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality are highly qualified professionals who are more than capable of discovering the facts and handling the response to any isolated event like those alleged here. We know that Wyoming operators strive every day to be safe, efficient and sustainable producers of the energy the world needs,” Obermueller said in an email.