Wyoming regulators approved new rules last week aimed at curbing methane emissions from oil wells.
The Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission voted 5-0 in favor of the new regulations. The vote came in a new era of oil development compared to when the regulations first ended up proposed in 2014.
Just one year ago, oil production in Wyoming was booming, raising concerns over the potential public health and environmental dangers posed by increased drilling. Today, the state’s oilfields are largely silent following a 70 percent collapse in the price of crude.
Commissioners acknowledged the change in comments before their vote but said the measure would improve data collection on methane emissions from oil wells. Companies now report total emission levels, but they do not identify what type of gas released or how it ended up disposed of.
The new rules will require operators to say what they are emitting and whether it they are venting or flaring. Venting is the practice of releasing raw gases into the atmosphere. Flaring, the process of burning off many pollutants in a well’s gas stream, is generally thought to be the less hazardous of the two disposal strategies.
“Although this is a painful time for the industry, I think now is a great time for folks to get their plans together for when drilling picks up,” said Tom Drean, Wyoming state geologist and a commission member. “I think this particular rule, with the plans that are required, would help fill that gap.”
Industry representatives hailed the move. Many assume methane comprises all flaring and venting emissions, said John Robitaille, vice president for the Petroleum Association of Wyoming. But in many cases the volumes reported include harmless gases.
Emissions from the top flaring and venting well in Wyoming during 2015, which comprised around 20 percent of the state’s annual total, were almost entirely made up of nitrogen, according to state regulators.
“We really don’t know what is accurate,” Robitaille said. “My hope is we will get a more accurate handle of what is going on.”
Environmentalists said the rule falls short of measures considered by other oil and gas producing states and the federal government. North Dakota has a prohibition on venting while the U.S. Bureau of Land Management recently proposed a similar ban.
The Wyoming rule lowers the daily venting limit from 60,000 cubic feet of gas to 20,000 cubic feet. The 20,000 cubic foot threshold was the biggest change from the draft rule, which had called for a 30,000 cubic foot standard.
The new rule leaves flaring thresholds unchanged. Operators will still be required to apply for a permit if daily flare volumes exceed 60,000 cubic feet.
Wyoming oil and gas companies reported flaring and venting volumes of 5 billion cubic feet in 2014. Flaring volumes for 2015 are a matter of some dispute given the volumes reported by the top flaring well.