(Un)clearing the air

by Keith Kloor

It took the Vernal office of the Bureau of Land Management seven years, millions of dollars and 584 pages to lay out a resource management plan for 1.7 million acres of public land in northeastern Utah. The document, finalized this fall, ensures that the area, which includes the spectacular Book Cliffs, will be governed primarily as a natural gas field for decades.

In late September, the Environmental Protection Agency's Rocky Mountain office sent a withering five-page critique of the plan to Selma Sierra, Utah BLM's state director. The BLM had not analyzed impacts on ozone levels from some 2,300 wells drilled in the area since 2004, Rocky Mountain EPA official Larry Svoboda wrote, nor had it predicted air impacts from the estimated 6,300 new wells approved in the plan. Vernal also hadn't bothered to include anticipated oil shale and tar sand projects.

When asked about what this means for the region's air quality, Svoboda is blunt: "We think that's a disaster waiting to happen."

After years of loosely regulated energy development under George W. Bush's Interior Department, there's a growing sense that the same kind of disaster could be in store for much of the West. The BLM has used similarly inadequate air-quality assessments to justify new resource management plans allowing vastly expanded energy development in Colorado, Wyoming and New Mexico over the next 20 years.

For a window into the West's future, look no further than Pinedale, Wyo., where energy development has contributed to unprecedented human health advisories for ozone in a place once renowned for its pristine air.

And the prospect of dangerously dirty air is only made worse, environmentalists say, by the slew of drilling projects and mineral lease sales that the BLM has approved in the waning months of the administration.

Just how nasty things will get remains to be seen. But Utah's skies appear headed for dark times. Svoboda recently sent critical missives to BLM's Price and Moab field offices. Like Vernal, both have newly minted plans authorizing major expansions of drilling on federal lands.

None of them, in Svoboda's opinion, do an adequate job of modeling possible air pollution. The BLM argues that it's impossible to model future impacts when it doesn't know how many oil and gas wells will ultimately be drilled. (Many resource management plans, including those for Price and Moab, don't estimate the extent of future development.) But EPA experts say computer models don't require that level of specificity in order to make legitimate pollution projections.

In fact, it's possible to analyze potential pollution as soon as energy leases go up for auction, something the BLM has resisted doing in other states besides Utah. The agency can estimate the number of wells because it knows where the gas is located and approximately how much is there, says Kevin Golden, an air modeler with EPA's Rocky Mountain office. And the BLM knows how much nitrous oxide and volatile organic compounds — key contributors to ozone — are emitted from drill rigs and the average well. It's even possible, says Golden, to estimate how much impact development will have 50 miles away. In general, though, the BLM analyzes projects separately, instead of assessing the collective impact of all the projects that could be allowed under a given resource management plan, Golden adds. "This is like doing an environmental analysis on the emissions from 12 cars in Los Angeles, when there are really 12 million cars."

However, the Utah BLM says there isn't enough data from air monitors near gas fields to make an accurate assessment as to whether a particular gas field is violating — or could violate — federal air-quality standards.

That's where state regulators come in — and not all are up to the task. In 2006, for example, Utah placed an air monitor in Vernal, a town of about 8,000 people. By 2007, the monitor was showing high concentrations of particulate matter — tiny pollutants from truck traffic and other energy-related operations. If the trend continued for three straight years, it would have exceeded federal air standards and triggered mandatory enforcement under the Clean Air Act.

Vernal's ozone levels had also periodically spiked to alarmingly high levels. The noxious haze is a leading cause of asthma attacks and other respiratory problems.

But last December, the state shut down the monitor in order to divert money from an EPA grant to the more populous Wasatch Front, which already has serious pollution problems. "We're in a funding crisis … and we're required to use our resources where they're needed most," says Bryce Bird of the Utah Division of Air Quality's Planning and Standards branch.

Environmentalists say the state's decision helped the BLM shirk a more thorough air-quality assessment; indeed, the agency argues that such an analysis was impossible without continuous data from the Vernal monitor. "That's the catch," says Wes Wilson, an EPA engineer who specializes in oil and gas issues. "Even if you get the additional modeling, it's not going to be backed up by the monitoring data."

Bill Stringer, Vernal's district manager, has not responded to High Country News' calls about the EPA critique of his office's air modeling.

Meanwhile, environmentalists are turning to the courts. The Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance sued the BLM earlier this year over its air-quality analysis for a drilling project in the White River Canyon. This area, just south of Vernal, has been identified by the agency as having wilderness characteristics. Earlier this month a federal judge in Washington, D.C., ordered the BLM to either prepare a new environmental assessment of the project's cumulative impacts on local ozone pollution or provide a reasoned explanation for its decision not to analyze those impacts. Similar lawsuits by other environmental groups have been filed in Colorado, New Mexico and Wyoming, accusing the agency of faulty cumulative air-impacts analyses.

The issue — and some say the air — is made murkier by the BLM's use of categorical exclusions, which, under the 2005 Energy Act, allow individual drilling projects to be approved without environmental review. A Government Accountability Office investigation of the waivers, expected to be completed in mid-2009, has revealed that the BLM granted nearly 6,000 since 2005, half of them in the big gas fields outside of Farmington, N.M., and Pinedale, Wyo. The Vernal office handed out 973.

The waivers tend to disappear when it comes time for the BLM to analyze the impacts of new development projects, EPA officials say. For example, last spring, Svoboda's team had just finished evaluating plans to allow 800 new wells on Utah's Tavaputs Plateau when they learned that the Price office had issued dozens of categorical exclusions to drilling projects in the area. The BLM didn't account for them in its environmental impact statement, nor did it mention their existence to Svoboda. Ultimately, the EPA gave the Price office a failing grade for its air-quality analysis of the expansion.

The loophole's implications are even larger under the most recent land-use plans. In the past, categorical exclusions were granted under existing environmental assessments or environmental impact statements. What is not commonly known, however, is that a categorical exclusion allows the BLM to approve a well under a resource management plan, which covers a much wider area, without informing anyone. "It's like being in the Soviet system and you have no idea what your government is doing," says EPA's Wilson.

Nobody thinks dirty air will disappear when Barack Obama takes office in January. While the president-elect is expected to take a more environmentally sensitive approach to public lands, activists don't foresee immediate changes at the state BLM or field office level. Many of the biggest drilling projects on the boards, including those recently approved by the Price and Vernal offices, may be unstoppable. "Institutional inertia will push a lot of these forward," says David Garbett, a staff lawyer for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance.

Does that mean the BLM's use — and misuse — of categorical exclusions will continue unabated? Not necessarily. Obama could quickly issue a new memorandum that "requires the BLM to notify the public before it issues a categorical exclusion," says Garbett. "That memo could instruct the BLM that it needs to have some sort of analysis that considers the impacts of development permitted by a categorical exclusion."

Meanwhile, unless the Vernal monitor is turned back on and kept on, there's no way to know whether ozone and particulate pollution will cause Vernal to violate the Clean Air Act.

"That's where the BLM and Utah Department of Air Quality are falling down on their responsibility," says Wilson. "Those people in Vernal could be breathing dirty air for another three years."

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