State Defends Air Quality Rules as Innovative

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS – Montana officials are defending air quality rules that allow oil and gas companies to obtain emissions approvals after they have started drilling.

The Environmental Protection Agency last month announced it intends to reject the rules because they do not meet requirements of the Clean Air Act. But Montana officials insist the rules are part of an innovative program that does not sacrifice environmental protections.

Adopted in 2005 and 2006, the rules give companies 60 days after drilling a well to register with the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. No emissions permit is required.

DEQ director Richard Opper said in a recent letter to the agency that the rules are more efficient than traditional permitting methods.

“I want to stress that this program does not compromise environmental protection for the sake of expediency,” Opper wrote. “I expect EPA to evaluate this program with one eye on the law and the other on innovation.”

Opper had sought to extend until June 30 the public comment period on EPA’s proposed rejection. He pointed out that the federal agency had four years to review the rules, but gave the state only a month to respond.

But Monica Morales, chief of the EPA’s air quality unit in Denver, said the agency is mandated under a consent decree with environmentalists to resolve the issue soon.

The original deadline under the decree was Feb. 28. Morales said the environmental group WildEarth Guardians had agreed to push it back to March 30.

EPA documents show the agency first raised objections to the state program in 2006 — prior to full implementation of the state’s rules. Morales said one of the federal government’s primary concerns was that the state’s approach lacked sufficient monitoring and record-keeping to ensure drilling was in compliance with national air quality standards.

Even if individual wells might meet the standards, Morales said Montana had not demonstrated it could gauge the cumulative impacts of all drilling. More than 900 oil and gas facilities — many with multiple wells — have been registered to date under the state program, according to the DEQ.

Federal law gives the EPA authority to enforce emissions limits on its own if it chooses. But Morales said the agency plans for now to work with Montana to improve its rule.

Industry groups support the rules and warn that changing them could stifle oil and gas production. They contend it makes no sense to seek permits prior to drilling because there is no way of knowing if oil or gas will be found.

The state rules have been criticized by representatives of WildEarth Guardians as too risky since reviews of emissions come after the fact. The group has said the risk will increase as more oil and gas companies seek to tap into the vast oil reserves of the Bakken oil formation in eastern Montana.

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