Federal Agencies Aim to Improve Coordination to Support Energy Development Safeguard Air Quality
In keeping with President Barack Obama’s strategy to expand domestic oil and gas production safely and responsibly, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released an interagency approach to address air quality issues associated with onshore oil and gas development on public lands.
A new Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) establishes a common process for the agencies to follow in analyzing the potential air quality impacts of proposed oil and gas activities on federally managed public lands. The collaborative approach established in the MOU will increase efficiency, certainty and transparency in the process – benefitting industry, federal agencies, states, and tribes.
“Today’s agreement 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. “Working with our federal partners, we are committed to delivering an environmental review process that is both transparent and comprehensive, supporting responsible domestic energy production on federal lands while ensuring environmental protection."
“This agreement is an important step forward for our nation’s energy security,” said Deputy Secretary of the Interior David J. Hayes. “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. 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.”
“This agreement 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. “This is a good example of what the president called for in his State of the Union address to find creative and innovative ways for government to work better together.”
Previously, federal agencies responsible for land management and air quality reviews associated with oil and gas development made decisions based on individual agency protocols. 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 (AQRVs). These differences often resulted in project delays.
To alleviate these delays and improve interagency coordination, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), EPA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the USDA Forest 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). NEPA requires all federal agencies to evaluate and disclose the potential environmental impacts of their proposed actions in a public process.
The agreement builds upon the best practices applied in a recent successful interagency collaboration on a major natural gas development project in Utah. The Greater Natural Buttes Area Gas Development Project had been delayed, in part, over concerns about its potential impacts on air quality in the Uintah Basin, which has seen some of the highest wintertime ozone levels in the nation. Over the last several months, the BLM and EPA worked closely with the project proponent to develop a mitigation plan to significantly reduce the project’s potential impacts, an important step forward for a project that could include up to 3,675 new gas wells over 10 years and produce more than 6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
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.