Letters from the West

Air quality not an issue in Idaho natural gas yet

One of the issues I looked into but did not include in my natural gas story Sunday was air quality. Alta Mesa, the company preparing to produce natural gas, is seeking an air quality permit for its natural gas dehydration plant near New Plymouth where its emissions are projected to be below federal air quality standards.

The other sources for air emissions we can expect are most diesel engines for operating pumps. These would be permitted individually as they reach the level of emissions that require permitting.

Idaho Conservation League Program Director Justin Hayes recommended to the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality it have Alta Mesa aggregate its air permits so all of the emissions are included collectively. But DEQ rejected that because so far there are not a lot of emission sources.

Critics have pointed to the air quality problems that Pinedale, Wyo. has experienced from the drilling there in the last decade. But John Peiserich, Alta Mesa’s consultant on permitting issues said Pinedale’s issues were created in part by the kind of gas reservoirs underneath the ground there, which are very different than in southwest Idaho.

“Trying to project Pinedale to western Idaho is not really responsible,” Peiserich said.

In the early stages of the dehydration plant permitting, Amanda Buchanan, Weiser resident who has become one of the strongest voices for citizen oversight of the new industry recommended Alta Mesa and Idaho DEQ consider getting involved in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Natural Gas STAR Program. STAR is a flexible, voluntary partnership that encourages oil and natural gas companies—both domestically and abroad—to adopt cost-effective technologies and practices that improve operational efficiency and reduce emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas and clean energy source.

Both the company and the state said they knew nothing about the program that pushes a strategy Idaho usually supports voluntary best management practices. Peiserich said its so early in the process it shouldn't be a concern.

I also asked EPA Region 10 what it thinks about STAR.

“Yes, we would encourage ALL States to take a close look at this program before embarking on oil or natural gas development with resource developers,” EPA Region 10 spokesman Mark MacIntyre said in an e-mail response.

Bill Rogers, DEQ’s stationary air quality source coordinator said he would present the program to Alta Mesa. But since it is voluntary it would be up to them.

So has EPA Region 10 encouraging Idaho to have oil and gas developers aggregate air pollution sources?

“The state of Idaho has an approved air quality permitting program under the Clean Air Act. As such, the state is the primary permitting authority for air quality. Idaho has not contacted us to date regarding air quality permitting issues surrounding oil and natural gas development in the state.,” MacIntyre wrote.

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