SALT LAKE CITY — There are more than 900,000 oil and gas wells across the country, and operators may not have proper equipment in place to meet federal requirements to control emissions that are harmful to human health.

To that end, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it is expanding a self-audit program to include existing operators that will give them 12 months to inspect and assure their own infrastructure is not releasing those harmful pollutants, rather than face federal fines.

“The outcome we are looking for is we get emissions controlled at these drill sites,” said Susan Bodine, the agency’s assistant director for enforcement and compliance.

The program already existed for new owners of existing wells, but expanded to include operators where no change of ownership took place.

“These sites are generally not manned, these emissions will not be visible to the naked eye. You won’t see it until there is an infrared camera,” Bodine said. “We know it is a widespread problem. We feel the best way to get them back into compliance is for them to do it themselves.”

Inadequately designed equipment such as piping and pressure release valves can lead to a flash of gas, undetectable to the human eye. That gas gets into the environment and leads to harmful public health problems.

In the Uinta Basin, for example, oil and gas production is responsible for the overwhelming majority of the unique problem of ozone pollution in the winter months. Ozone is a harmful pollutant that can cause respiratory problems and a variety of other health issues.

To curtail that, the EPA is asking for operators to self-audit their systems to make sure that release of gas isn’t happening.

Operators have to prove to the federal agency through a technical analysis they have instituted the proper pollution controls during this extension period.

“It is a very robust technical analysis they have to go through. We would hope that a lot of companies would do this,” Bodine said. “And at the end of the day, it will result in tremendous emission reductions.”

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But there are skeptics.

“We recently learned from a state audit that Utah’s oil and gas extraction industry hasn’t been fined for being out of compliance for some time,” said Dr. Scott Williams, executive director of the Healthy Environment Alliance of Utah. “How will the oil and gas extraction industry be held accountable to make their self-reporting accurate and transparent when they already know they won’t get caught? We are skeptical that this new rule, that focuses on areas like the Uinta Bbasin which the state and the EPA already knows aren’t in compliance, will lead to better compliance and reduced emissions.”   

But Bodine stressed that if EPA’s inspections on the ground or via flyovers with special equipment detect emission violations prior to an operator voluntarily joining the self-audit program, penalties will apply.

“The incentive is for them to step forward.”

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