Commentary: Federal oil and gas rule rollback is bad news for Utah’s air

Zinke is choosing to gut reforms and instead rely on a 40-year-old regulatory framework that is disconnected from our 21st-century energy landscape.

Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune Equipment in the oil fields of the Uintah Basin Tuesday, February 7, 2012, southeast of Vernal, Utah. Government agencies and and industry announced the Uintah Basin Winter Ozone Study, which intends to better understand why ozone levels occasionally soar above health-based standards in the winter.

Oil and gas air pollution is a serious problem in Utah, but a new rulemaking from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) intended to roll back recently finalized waste and pollution reduction measures is bad news for clean air and for state revenue.

We know what bad air days feel like in the Wasatch Front and how detrimental they can be to our economic development, and to our personal health and wellbeing. Less well known, but just as problematic, are the smoggy skies that can plague eastern Utah’s Uinta Basin. This local air quality problem has been directly tied to pollution from oil and gas drilling sites, a problem these new BLM rules would help solve.

Uintah and Duchesne counties are both major centers of oil and gas production on federal and tribal lands and struggle with high ozone levels, putting public health at risk. Ozone pollution can trigger asthma attacks and worsen emphysema. Children and the elderly, are especially at-risk to the effects of air pollution. Kids exposed to high ozone can often experience a lifetime of lingering effects on their hearts and lungs. Current ozone levels in these counties are so high that the region is expected to become a federal “nonattainment” area by April 30. That designation will trigger the need for further actions to reduce pollution.

But the impacts are not just to air quality. Rolling back these measures will mean less state revenue as well. By his agency’s own estimates, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s proposal to gut the BLM methane waste rule will waste tens of millions of taxpayer dollars and cost Americans more than $1 billion in wasted natural gas and pollution.

In Utah, studies have shown that the oil and gas industry is wasting $28.4 million worth of natural gas from federal and tribal lands every year. As a result, Utah taxpayers lost out on over $31 million in royalties from 2009 to 2014 because of wasted natural gas on federal/tribal lands. This is funding would otherwise go to education, healthcare and roads — specific sectors that are continually cash strapped and fall short from other funding sources.

This rollback is also out of step with the desires of Utahns. According to a recent Envision Utah survey, 75 percent of Utahns want cleaner air. Another recent bipartisan poll found that 82 percent of Utahns want federal standards that cut waste and pollution from oil and gas development.

In 2016 the BLM held more than half a dozen public hearings across the west, before finalizing new standards to cut methane waste and associated air pollution from oil and gas development on federal and tribal lands. But, despite bipartisan opposition to rollbacks in Congress and overwhelming opposition across the country, Zinke is choosing to gut reforms and instead rely on a 40-year-old regulatory framework that is disconnected from our 21st-century energy landscape.

This rule reversal will leave Utah families with less funding for our schools and communities, wasted energy, and more smog pollution threatening the health of our children and seniors.

But, despite widespread support for the rules across the west and in Utah, the agency is proposing to remove these waste reduction requirements without a single public hearing. This flies in the face of calls for greater transparency across the political spectrum.

Despite the lack of adequate public input opportunities, the BLM is currently accepting public comments through Monday. Since this appears to be our only opportunity to provide public input, please join me in opposing this harmful rule change. Submit your comments to Zinke and the BLM, letting them know that Utahns want sensible rules to cut methane waste, expanded revenue opportunities for our state with no financial burden on industry, and greater transparency and public input in the process.

Søren Simonsen

Soren Simonsen is a founding board member of the Mormon Environmental Stewardship Alliance (MESA), and has been working on air quality, environment and conservation projects and initiatives for three decades as a planning and design professional, and as an elected and appointed official.