This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2016, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Natural gas is a fuel source used to warm homes. As Utah's population grows, the demand for natural gas grows. As burning fuel of any sort makes precursors to wintertime particulate pollution in the Wasatch Front, Breathe Utah always reminds consumers to be conservative in how we use gas. Furthermore, since by-products of fossil fuel extraction give rise to wintertime pollution in the Uinta Basin, a responsible approach to extraction is just as important.
Unfortunately, a huge amount of natural gas, mostly methane, is being lost to the atmosphere by oil and gas operations from venting and flaring as well as leaks from numerous stages of extraction, storage and transport. Every pipe joint is suspect.
After several years spent taking comments and at least 20 public hearings, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management has issued specific rules to stop natural gas waste in oil and gas fields on federal and tribal lands, which includes our most heavily developed energy field in the Uinta Basin.
The BLM calculates operators on federal and tribal lands released 462 billion cubic feet of natural gas into U.S. air between 2009 and 2014 enough gas to serve about 6.2 million households for a year.
Other analysis by ICF International found that enough natural gas is lost in Utah alone to heat about 115,000 homes each year. With the new rules about capture and leak detection, the amount of escaped gas may eventually be cut by approximately a third.
Natural gas released at drilling sites contains powerful lung irritants and contributes to the equally unhealthy ozone in the Uinta Basin. While this alone is a very good reason to stop the waste, methane is a potent greenhouse gas. Thus, leaking and venting gas has massive ramifications for the stability of weather patterns.
Although the BLM has a duty to protect health and preserve diversity of uses on public lands, a primary function is the stewardship of the land's resources. When the gas is captured and paid for instead of wasted, about half of those funds comes back to a state and local government in Utah.
Utah's Division of Air Quality made similar rules for Utah several years ago that go into effect in 2017. The BLM rules complement those efforts, and align well enough that the Utah Attorney General is declining to challenge the rule in court. Given the patchwork of landownership and jurisdiction in eastern Utah, we need agencies working together on solutions for the region.
From nearly every perspective, capturing the gas is worth the effort. With more product to sell, the driller recoups some costs for repairs, upgrades and closing hatches. Communities benefit from the additional fees and royalties available to local and federal governments. Leak detection and repair creates maintenance jobs. And, the people of eastern Utah and western Colorado will have better health and lower health costs.
Additional control measures may have some impact on profit margins. A minority of industry may find the new rules add burden, as costs for extraction and transport of some Basin-specific products are higher than average. However, we can look to neighboring states to be reassured that, overall, oil and gas jobs are not at risk. Colorado and Wyoming have greatly improved their air with regulations similar to or greater than those of the BLM and have increased production and revenue. Indeed, new industries, such as manufacture of control products, are thriving, especially in Colorado where methane capture rules are quite strict.
As long as there is a market for oil and gas, producers will continue to extract it. If it is done here in Utah, not only do Utahns get the jobs, but we can ensure that it is extracted and used in the most responsible way possible. Americans continue to craft laws and regulations to maintain our clean air, water and lands. Cleaner air and good health would come with the new BLM rules, especially for the people wherever oil and gas drilling is happening.
Debbie Burney-Sigman is executive director of Breathe Utah.