EPA works to protect wildlands and natural resources in Utah; industry continues to make false claims

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently commented on a proposal by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to allow natural gas development in a remote corner of eastern Utah’s Uinta Basin. This proposal includes nearly 1500 new natural gas wells and 30 toxic waste sites. The EPA found that the BLM’s environmental impact statement did not adequately analyze the full range of potential environmental impacts from the proposed drilling or more environmentally sustainable alternatives--and therefore did not meet the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act.

In a news article, an industry representative complained that “EPA does not seem to care about job creation and the effect on American job creation.” There is zero evidence to back up such a claim. To the contrary, cleaner operations also create jobs. That's a fact. Industry continues to portray drilling discussions as a stark--and false--dichotomy with only two choices: (a) drill, or (b) kill jobs. But we know there are many other options and different approaches that allow us to protect our wildest lands, apply the best industry practices to keep our air and water as clean as possible, and still provide jobs to American workers. As a matter of fact, industry is already on the record--in no uncertain terms--that cleaning up dirty air pollution can create jobs. For example, workers are needed to manufacture, transport, install, monitor and and maintain air pollution control equipment.

Among the EPA’s findings:

  • The BLM did not fully consider the potential impacts that the development might have on wintertime ozone. Last winter the Uinta Basin had the worst wintertime ozone in the nation! Some days the ozone levels were nearly double the levels allowed under federal rules and known to harm human health.  Ozone can trigger asthma attacks, reduce lung function, and even cause premature death.
  • The analysis of air quality impacts did not include the potential for substantial emissions of hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), known to cause harm to human health, from the waste facilities. The EPA stated that “an accurate prediction of potential HAP impacts from the proposed project is necessary to protect those living, working, or recreating in or near the project area.”
  • These waste pits also present significant threats to water quality and to migratory birds and other wildlife, yet the BLM did not really consider available alternatives.
  • The BLM did not adequately characterize local aquifers, water wells, or springs. EPA stated that the storing produced water in the proposed pits presents “a potentially significant risk to groundwater and surface water.”
  • EPA found that “The potential for significant impacts to water resources exists during all project stages, including drilling, well pad construction, production, hydraulic fracturing, produced water disposal, and freshwater withdrawal.”
  • The BLM proposal does not clearly describe mitigation measures for protecting the environment and does not have a complete monitoring plan.
  • EPA is concerned about the potential for harmful runoff of sediments, salts and selenium—serious sources of water contamination, and found that the BLM proposal needs better monitoring and mitigation plans to detect and prevent unacceptable impacts.
  • The BLM did not consider alternatives to reduce ground disturbance even though alternatives are available that could reduce ground disturbance by approximately 60 percent. That’s huge! This would help preserve vital wildlife habitat, sensitive soils that are the keystone of the local ecosystem, and prized historical rock art.
  • The BLM proposal includes more than 200 new natural gas wells in the Desolation Canyon proposed wilderness area—some of the wildest lands remaining unprotected in our nation. EPA recommended that BLM adopt an alternative that—along with being better for the area’s air and water—would not authorize any new surface facilities in this proposed wilderness area.

Wow. EPA did a great job of pointing out that natural gas production presents some very serious risks to health and the environment, and that solutions are available that would allow this development to go forward--if it goes forward--with a much lighter impact. Many of these cleaner solutions also save money for natural gas producers. There are win-win solutions, yet the BLM did not consider them.

No one can make a credible case that the EPA does not care about American jobs. A cleaner environment is good for our health and our economy. What the EPA does appear to care about is enforcing the law of the land, which requires the BLM to consider all environmental impacts and maximize the benefits while minimizing the harms. We fully support EPA’s actions to protect our public lands, wildlife, and the health of nearby communities.