(Un)clearing the air

Westerners will breathe the legacy of Bush’s BLM

  • Pat Bagley/caglecartoons.com
 

Page 2

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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.