The Bureau of Land Management is clamping down on companies that dump methane gas into the atmosphere.
Methane is the principal component of natural gas, and the agency said oil and gas wells on federal and tribal land leak, flare or vent enough methane each year to power five million homes. The BLM just announced a draft rule that would force companies to install new technology to capture the wasted gas at well sites. Kathy Van Dame, from the nonprofit Breathe Utah, said the new rules are an important step.
"It could have been fuel to make electricity for us or to heat our homes, but rather, it’s escaping into the atmosphere,” Van Dame said. “We’re losing all of that economic value. And when it’s un-burned, it is a potent greenhouse gas."
Under the proposal, venting gas would be prohibited except in emergencies. Companies would be required to install new components and retrain their workers to avoid leaks. Flaring or burning off the gas would only be allowed at lower levels, and the companies would have to pay royalties on what they waste. A study by the Western Values Project estimates Utah has lost out on $31 million in such royalties since 2009.
Jamie Riccobono is with the American Lung Association of Utah. She said the release of methane and other pollutants is linked to cancer and asthma. She notes that in Utah, the problem is primarily hitting rural communities near oil and gas development.
"One study found that 90 percent of the ozone pollution in the Uinta Basin here in Utah was from oil and gas operations,” Riccobono said.
The draft rule will be soon be published in the Federal Register which kicks off a 60-day public comment period. The BLM is planning several public meetings on the proposed rule in February and March.