Environmental groups have told the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) they plan to sue the federal agency unless it quickly takes steps to invoke an ozone nonattainment designation in western Wyoming in the Upper Green River Basin, the site of natural gas drilling activity.

Earthjustice and Citizens United for Responsible Energy Development (CURED) wrote to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson regarding what they characterized as her office’s unlawful failure to process a designation of nonattainment for ozone in the Upper Green River. Wyoming’s former Gov. David Freudenthal in 2009 recommended that EPA designate the area as nonattainment.

President Obama in September backed off plans to lower the nationwide EPA limit for ozone, affirming the current limit of 75 parts/billion (ppb) (see NGI, Sept. 5). Average ozone in the Green River basin was exceeded 13 days this past winter in February and March.

“I thank the president for making this decision,” Gov. Matt Mead said. “Businesses need regulatory certainty, and this removes some ambiguity for companies.”

Mead said he was “committed to working with the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and industry to continue responsible development.” Earlier, he said, he had expressed concerns about the potential economic impact of this and other EPA proposed rules singly and in combination.

State DEQ officials told NGI Tuesday that Wyoming is carrying on like most states since the Obama administration’s decision to delay implementing new standards until 2013. EPA regional officials have told Wyoming’s DEQ that there will be a designation in place by June, following an agency and public review of earlier state plans submitted in 2009.

“June of next year is when EPA [Region 8] will shoot for having a designation determination in each state,” said DEQ’s Steve Dietrich. “EPA is intending to go forward with the 75 ppb ozone designation and nonattainment process. From our data, Sublette County [Upper Green River] is the only Wyoming county that is exceeding that standard.”

The environmental groups’ potential lawsuit centers on the federal EPA establishment of a revised national ambient air quality standard for ozone March 12, 2008, for which even with a one-year extension, the Wyoming groups claim EPA should have established a new standard in the Green River Basin by March 12, 2011 at the latest. EPA’s failure to do so puts it in violation of its own requirements to have acted by now, they said in their letter to Jackson.

“As the oil and gas industry has already proposed thousands of new wells within the Upper Green River Basin, the health and welfare of Sublette County’s residents depends upon your taking immediate action to ensure that any such development proceeds in a manner that restores and protects the region’s air quality,” said the letter, signed by Montana- and Washington, DC-based attorneys for Earthjustice.

They threatened to seek a court order on behalf of CURED if the EPA action is not taken in 60 days, or late November. If successful, the lawsuit would compel EPA’s Jackson to fulfill her duties under the Clean Air Act [Section 107(d)].

The nonprofit groups have said they want the EPA action to put more pressure on the state DEQ and the natural gas industry to reduce the emissions that lead to ozone.

DEQ completed an assessment that according to the protesting groups “conclusively showed” that elevated ozone levels in the region were directly due to oil and gas drilling activity, including drilling, production, storage, transport and treating of the gas.”

Wyoming submitted its original plan for addressing the ozone issue in 2009 and has waited for a review and response from EPA. However, once the federal agency delayed setting a new standard, everything was placed on hold. “We’ve been working with the industry very hard to curb the emissions on a voluntary basis,” said DEQ Director Keith Guille. “It is really important for all parties involved to find out what the standard is, and from there, determine the actions to be taken on this very complicated issue.”

DEQ has been working with the industry on voluntary efforts to address the ozone levels, and Dietrich said Wyoming will continue those efforts regardless of what happens with the EPA designation because the state needs to eventually formalize the voluntary efforts into its implementation plan for addressing the nonattainment area once that process gets further along.

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