It's Not All Blue Skies for Drilling Project
January 29, 2005
GILLETTE, Wyo. — When he turned Mt. Rushmore into his granite canvas, sculptor Gutzon Borglum wrote that the faces of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt and Lincoln would remain visible, Lord willing, "until the wind and the rain alone shall wear them away."
Borglum's vision endures in the Black Hills of South Dakota about 130 miles from here, but for nearly a month every year, it may soon become harder to see the famous faces through the man-made haze generated by the addition of 50,000 gas wells in northeastern Wyoming and southeastern Montana.
It is just one of several ways in which the largest expansion of natural gas drilling approved by the federal government is expected to degrade air quality in the region that today has the clearest skies in the lower 48 states.
The federal Bureau of Land Management, under pressure from the White House to fast-track energy production, approved the drilling plan two years ago without incorporating any requirements to reduce the resulting air pollution.
Government scientists expect that the drilling expansion, combined with a planned increase in coal mining and oil drilling in the northern Great Plains, will nearly double smog-forming emissions and greatly increase particulate matter pollution in a thinly populated region that has produced less than 3% of the amount of unhealthful air found in Los Angeles.
The BLM moved forward with the project despite its own air quality analysis, which concluded that the pollution would cloud views at more than a dozen national parks and monuments, exceed federal air quality standards in several communities and cause acid rain to fall on mountain lakes, where it could harm fish and wildlife.
The Environmental Protection Agency, National Park Service and U.S. Forest Service expressed similar concerns to the BLM.
The agency was told to expect particle-laden dust clouds and smog-forming exhaust from what amounted to a new industrial zone of gas wells, compressor stations and service roads spanning more than 30 million acres.
"From our review, it appears this project may be inconsistent with the Clean Air Act," Forest Service officials wrote in a 2002 letter to the BLM. The letter stated that the Forest Service was particularly concerned about the effects of pollution and acid rain on several popular wilderness recreation areas.
EPA officials wrote in a similar 2002 letter to the land management agency: "Monitoring and mitigation are given short shrift." They added that the agency's environmental review did not "adequately link the modeled impacts, which are clearly above regulatory criteria, with what BLM proposes that it would do or it would recommend others do to mitigate impacts."
BLM officials acknowledged they were under orders from Washington to quickly approve the projects, which the Bush administration considered vital to meeting the nation's energy needs.
The U.S. Energy Department predicted last year that natural gas demand would grow 38% by 2025.
The Powder River Basin, the energy-rich region of Wyoming and Montana where the drilling plan was authorized, is believed to contain enough natural gas to power the country for a year.
The administration has also accelerated drilling in Utah, Colorado and New Mexico, raising concerns about environmental effects. But the increase in drilling activity has been greatest in Wyoming.
There, BLM officials said they were collaborating with state officials and industry groups to see that steps were taken to prevent serious problems.
"Even though we approved these wells, we were careful to disclose all impacts, and we have been working to mitigate them," said Richard Zander, assistant field manager for minerals and lands at the BLM field office in Buffalo, Wyo.
Wyoming officials, now flooded with permit applications to run heavy equipment at the gas fields, are planning a massive network of monitoring sensors to measure how much air pollution the fields are generating. Officials, however, concede that they are not sure how the state will pay for all of it. Gas companies are helping purchase some of the monitors.
"We definitely want to make sure we don't violate the Clean Air Act," said John Corra, director of the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality.
Critics say it will be difficult for government regulators to control the pollution after failing to address it upfront.
"It was one of the worst pieces of work I have seen in a long time, and it made me mad," said John Molenar, an air pollution consultant who has worked for the National Park Service. He was hired by a Wyoming environmental group, the Powder River Basin Resource Council, to review the gas project.
"Let's be honest about the consequences," Molenar said. "There will be an observable brown cloud at some times of the year that people will get mad about."
Now underway, the drilling boom, which will take two decades to complete, has already added more than 3,000 natural gas wells to the Powder River Basin, a picturesque landscape of meandering streams, rolling hills and expansive ranches where Crazy Horse once fought U.S. soldiers and Butch Cassidy hid from lawmen.
The air pollution from the gas project, when combined with existing emissions from cars, coal mines and power plants, is expected to diminish visibility at Mt. Rushmore National Memorial 26 days a year, according to the BLM's air quality analysis.
Other government estimates, which did not take into account local weather factors, said the haze could obscure views of the monument for up to 180 days a year.
Emissions are also expected to hinder visibility at Wyoming's Yellowstone National Park on 13 days, at South Dakota's Badlands National Park on 28 days and at Montana's Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation on 92 days. At Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, the monolithic rock formation made famous by the movie "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," air pollution will degrade visibility on 47 days, the analysis found.
Oil and gas companies began pushing to expand drilling during the last two years of the Clinton administration, as natural gas prices surged. Those efforts went into overdrive under President George W. Bush, who made energy development in the Rocky Mountain states a top priority.
As the size of the expansion became clear, numerous government agencies filed written complaints with the BLM about the effect on air, water and wildlife.
"We are particularly concerned that the project may result in significant or potentially adverse impacts to several units of the National Park System," park service officials wrote.
In addition to concerns over haze, park service officials warned that air pollution could produce more acid rain, which occurs when emissions of sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides react in the atmosphere.
EPA officials noted that particulate matter, mainly a result of surface coal mining, had already violated federal limits in parts of Wyoming on 13 days during 2001 and 2002. They warned that increased traffic at gas fields was sure to kick up dust, making the problem worse.
Paul Beels, a BLM official who oversaw the environmental review for the Wyoming portion of the project, said Wyoming did not want the BLM to require measures to reduce air pollution.
"They basically didn't want the feds messing around and telling them how this was going to be regulated," Beels said.
Unpersuaded, four environmental groups have filed a federal lawsuit accusing the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees the land management agency, of failing to protect air quality as required by the Clean Air Act and other federal laws. They assert that the natural gas blueprint the BLM approved should be scaled back or put on hold unless the potential for pollution can be reduced.
In response, industry groups are pressing Congress to rewrite the rules protecting visibility at national parks, arguing that they have become a way for environmentalists to hold up energy production.
Their effort is supported by Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal, who is worried that the haze rules will take away the state's power to police energy projects. In a letter to Bush administration officials last year, the Democratic governor argued that the visibility guidelines should be withdrawn.
Wyoming, which has roughly half a million residents, depends on natural resource extraction for its financial health. It enjoys a $949-million budget surplus, largely due to revenue from natural gas and mining.
"You are going to see this issue addressed — no doubt about it," said Jim Sims, a former communications director for Vice President Dick Cheney's energy task force who is now executive director of the Western Business Roundtable. "These tools have given antidevelopment groups grounds for a lawsuit. Some of these [visibility] changes are hardly even noticeable."
Wyoming oil and gas groups are downplaying the effects, contending that the region's gas deposits will be drained in two decades.
"When you are building a house, there is a lot of activity; but after that you put in the grass and the trees, and it calms down considerably," said Bruce Hinchey, president of the Petroleum Assn. of Wyoming. "It's similar with these wells."
However, early data from natural gas fields in another part of the state show that state and federal officials underestimated the extent of air pollution. The fields in the Upper Green River Valley, approved during the Clinton administration, produced 2 1/2 times more nitrogen oxide pollution than government officials anticipated. Nitrogen oxides are one of the main ingredients of smog.
"It's pretty obvious that since 1999, we have seen a marked increase" in nitrogen oxide emissions, said Ted Porwoll, an air-quality technician at Bridger-Teton National Forest, who has been monitoring air quality since 1984.
Federal officials are now proposing to expand drilling in the Upper Green River area to more than 10,000 wells over the next two decades.
Meanwhile, ranchers and residents have complained about flaring, or open burning of impure natural gas, which releases plumes of pollutants into the air. They have petitioned the state to regulate it.
One of the more outspoken critics is Perry Walker, a retired Air Force physicist and amateur astronomer. Two years ago, he began noticing that his nighttime views of the Sombrero Galaxy seemed to be getting cloudier.
Walker, who set up his own monitors to track pollution in the Upper Green River Valley, says that views of the state's most majestic landmarks, such as the 13,000-foot peaks of the Wind River Range, are starting to lose clarity.
"We've got two beautiful mountains behind me here," Walker said, "and they're disappearing into the haze.
"The problem with this state is that people are afraid that these oil and gas men are going to get in their white pickups and go back to Texas," he said. "Of course, that's garbage. What they want is in the ground right here, and they have to work with us to get it."