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Interagency Approach Crafted to Review Oil, Gas Air Quality

Three federal agencies Friday said they will take an interagency approach to tackle air quality issues associated with onshore oil and natural gas development on public lands.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Interior and Department of Agriculture have reached a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that establishes a common process for the agencies to follow in analyzing potential air quality impacts of proposed oil and gas activities on federal management public lands.

The MOU "will align federal agencies so that oil and natural gas development in the United States is achieved in a way that also protects important environmental resources," said EPA Deputy Administrator Bob Perciasepe.

"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," said Deputy Interior Secretary David J. Hayes. Greater Natural Buttes is a major natural gas development project in Utah's Uintah Basin that would include up to 3,675 new gas wells and potentially produce more than 6 Tcf of natural gas over 10 years.

The project, first proposed by Kerr-McGee Oil & Gas Onshore LP in 2006, has been delayed partly due to concerns about its impacts on air quality in the Uintah Basin, which has seen some of the unhealthiest winter time ozone levels in the nation, according to Interior's Bureau of Land Management. Over the last several months, the EPA said it and the BLM have worked closely with the company to develop a mitigation plan to significantly reduce the project's potential impact on air quality, BLM said.

Earlier this month BLM published in the Federal Register a public notice of an air quality supplement to the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Greater Natural Buttes Project.

The MOU "ensures we do not have to sacrifice clean air in our communities nor our protected public landscapes when oil and gas development occurs," said Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan.

Prior to the agreement, the federal agencies responsible for land management and air quality reviews associated with oil and gas made their decision unilaterally. Agencies used different approaches when determining the adequacy of air quality analyses and mitigation; the stage in oil and gas activities -- planning, leasing or permitting -- when air quality analyses should occur; and the appropriate thresholds and resource conditions to use as the starting point for analyzing impacts to visibility and other air quality-related values.

The EPA, Agriculture's Forest Service and several Interior agencies -- BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Park Service -- worked to establish mutually acceptable procedures for conducting air quality analyses as part of the environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), according to EPA. The agreement provides for early interagency consultation throughout the NEPA process.

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