US agencies agree to coordinate onshore air permit processes

Nick Snow
OGJ Washington Editor

WASHINGTON, DC, June 27 -- The US Departments of the Interior and Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency reached a memorandum of understanding outlining an interagency approach to air-quality issues associated with oil and gas development on onshore public lands. The MOU establishes a common process for DOI and USDA agencies and EPA to follow, officials said on June 24.

“This agreement helps institutionalize the type of collaborative effort that created a path forward for the Greater Natural Buttes gas project in Utah and that encouraged the use of best practices and sensible air pollution control technologies,” Deputy Interior Sec. David J. Hayes explained. “We want to build on lessons learned to establish clearer lines of communication and a predictable, common sense process for ensuring prompt and thorough reviews of proposed oil and gas projects.”

He and officials from EPA and USDA noted that federal agencies responsible for land management and air quality reviews on onshore public lands where oil and gas activity might occur previously made decisions based on individual agency protocols. These resulted in different approaches to determine adequacy of air quality analyses and mitigation; the stage during oil and gas planning, leasing, or permitting when air quality analysis should occur; and appropriate thresholds and resource conditions for analyzing impacts to visibility and other air quality-related values (AQRVs). The differences often delayed projects, they said.

To alleviate such delays, they said, EPA; DOI’s Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, and Fish and Wildlife Service, and USDA’s Forest Service worked to establish mutually acceptable air quality analysis procedures as part of the review required under the National Environmental Policy Act.

The MOU outlines a number of steps the agencies will take to ensure that federal laws protecting air quality, human health, and the environment are balanced with the nation’s energy needs. The agreement provides for early interagency consultation throughout the NEPA process; common procedures for determining what type of air quality analyses are appropriate and when air modeling is necessary; specific provisions for analyzing and discussing impacts to air quality and for mitigating such impacts; and a dispute resolution process to facilitate timely resolution of differences among agencies.

Specific provisions
It specifically commits the signatories’ agencies to collaborate throughout the NEPA process, including providing the lead agency with input and assistance early in the process on appropriate analysis and mitigation to address air quality and AQRVs.

The MOU also establishes common procedures for determining which types of air quality analyses are appropriate and when air modeling is necessary, specific provisions for analyzing and discussing impacts to AQRVs and for mitigating such impacts, and a dispute resolution process for promptly resolving differences among the signatories or their respective agencies.

Finally, it assures that if EPA determines the MOU’s procedures have been followed, it will rate the resulting NEPA analysis of air quality or AQRVs as adequate (and inadequate, or “3”) under EPA’s criteria for rating draft environmental impact statements.

Rocky Mountain producers have been waiting for this MOU to be signed for about a year, an official of the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance said on June 24. “We’ve been struggling with getting projects moving, including getting NEPA approvals in the Uintah basin for a couple of years,” Kathleen Sgamma, WEA’s government affairs director, told OGJ. BLM apparently wanted to get the MOU in place before moving forward with projects, she said.

EPA requirements changed
Sgamma said WEA, the former Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, and its members hope that by EPA coordinating better with BLM, they won’t see what problems similar to the past few years when EPA changed its air modeling and producers applying for permits have had to conduct new studies. “Gasco has done three separate air studies because EPA kept changing its requirements. Anadarko [Petroleum Corp.] went through several analyses as well,” she said.

The MOU built on an air quality mitigation agreement BLM and EPA reached with Anadarko on June 9 to allow the Houston independent producer’s Greater Natural Buttes natural gas project in eastern Utah to move forward.

Anadarko subsidiary Kerr-McGee Oil & Gas Onshore LP agreed to use several readily available air pollution control technologies on the project in coordination with BLM and EPA, US Sec. of the Interior Ken Salazar said at the time. The project, which Kerr-McGee Onshore first proposed in 2006, has been delayed partly over air quality impact concerns in eastern Utah’s Uintah basin, which has some of the nation’s unhealthiest wintertime ozone levels, he said.

Sgamma said that the Greater Natural Buttes agreement could serve as a test for how the MOU works, but emphasized that it’s not a final project approval. “We still don’t know when that EIS will be signed and DOI will allow development to actually go forward. That remains to be seen,” she said.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.



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