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North Dakota Expects More Action on Methane Emissions

In tandem with natural gas flaring, methane emissions promise to be a growing issue for North Dakota state officials and the oil and gas industry, the head of the state environmental health section in the Department of Health (DOH) told NGI'sShale Daily on Monday.

DOH's Mark Glatt said it is certain new rules for limiting methane emissions will be forthcoming from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) (see Daily GPI, Sept. 4), and he is attempting to get other state agencies and the industry to begin tightening up operations at wellsites.

Methane is part of the volatile organic carbon emissions (VOC) sector, and in North Dakota, the DOH regulates VOCs. Glatt said he is seeking added inspection staff positions in anticipation of the push to reign in methane.

"We are pretty swamped right now, and we're doing an okay job, but as you add more regulations, additional staff will be required,” he said. “We have regulations dealing with flash emissions, tank emissions and those types of things.”

He noted that oil contains VOCs, and when the oil is stored in tanks there are emissions that contain methane. Under state law, any gas that doesn't get taken away via pipeline must be flared to eliminate VOC emissions.

"Operators just can't vent the [associated gas] into the atmosphere, so it has to go through some type of combustion,” he said, calling the requirement a last resort since the state has made a push to cut back and eventually eliminate flaring.

Glatt's section in DOH monitors production wells with visual inspections, and eventually it will use a network of infrared cameras to identify leaks. The visual inspections currently cite valve and hatch covers that are left open, one of the most common violations cited.

"We'll use cameras to make spot checks so we can be assured everything is being controlled as much as possible," Glatt said. Separately, an ongoing methane emissions project by the Clean Air Task Force and a Purdue University professor uses aerial surveillance with infrared cameras mounted on planes.

Glatt said given North Dakota's number of wells and the coming EPA rules, staff needs to be increased. In the next state budget cycle there is a request for 15 more positions in the environmental health section. Those positions would deal with water and waste issues, in addition to air quality.

"There are going to be new rules, and our role will be to implement those regulations, and to do appropriate monitoring to make sure the [operators] are in compliance, but I don't see us doing anything before the feds takes some action," Glatt said. "We have primacy within the state to implement the [federal] Clean Air Act."

He said the state won't do anything unilaterally because North Dakota laws cannot exceed federal statutes. "There is some low-hanging fruit we can deal with now, such as valves and hatches being left open, so we're reminding people in the industry to pay attention to detail."

Having heard more about methane from the White House on down (see Daily GPI, March 28) about curbing methane emissions, Glatt thinks North Dakota needs to start doing more to address the issue. "The capture of the gas for beneficial use is the direction we need to be going, and as quickly as possible," Glatt said.

Glatt sees the state's role being as much educational as enforcement in trying to address methane emissions in the nation's second largest oil-producing state. If the VOC emission regulations are violated, companies will be fined, he said.

"Overall, air quality issues -- even though North Dakota is in compliance with all of the ambient air quality standards -- are something that as soon as it comes on line we need to pay attention to with the state working with that federal government, and that is where we're headed," he said.

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