The head of the Environmental Protection Agency visited North Dakota this week on a 25-state listening tour, amid an effort by the Trump administration to roll back a host of environmental regulations.
The latest battle is over leaks of methane and other invisible gases, which sometimes escape from the equipment that’s supposed to contain them at oil and gas well sites.
EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is working to halt Obama-era rules requiring stricter controls at those well sites.
Methane is a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Some residents of the Bakken oil patch, like Lisa DeVille, are concerned it’s harming the quality of the air. DeVille is a board member of local watchdog Dakota Resource Council and president of affiliate Fort Berthold Protectors of Water and Earth Rights.
Last year, she stood at a well site near her home in Mandaree with an infrared camera, which can detect gas leaks. She saw a plume on screen coming from one of the tank batteries next to the well.
“I knew how toxic they were,” she said. “But just to witness it on this camera, it's like, this is what we're breathing?”
The Dakota Resource Council has released a new report highlighting its concerns about these leaks. The group wants federal methane rules to go into effect to limit pollution they say is “endangering the health of communities across North Dakota.”
But state health officials point to their own air monitors, which show the leaks have not harmed air quality across the oil patch.
The air is healthy to breathe, even for people living close to oil well sites, said Jim Semerad, manager of permitting and compliance for the North Dakota Department of Health’s Division of Air Quality.
“Our monitors that are portable haven’t shown dramatic rises off site,” he said. “I haven’t seen anything that would cause me concern for those folks.”
While the debate plays out in oil-rich states, it’s also tangled up in court.
Under President Barack Obama, the EPA issued its methane rules in 2016, requiring companies to ramp up leak detection monitoring. North Dakota and other states sued.
The Bureau of Land Management also issued a rule last year to contain leaks and flaring on public and Indian land, but the new administration put that rule on hold.
Likewise, Pruitt is now trying to delay the EPA methane rules. His agency first issued a 90-day stay, which a federal court struck down after environmental groups sued.
Some states, like Colorado and Wyoming, already have rules on their books requiring oil and gas companies to detect and repair leaks.
North Dakota has taken a different approach, getting the industry to take part in a new voluntary program.
“It’s effective,” Semerad said. “The rule would take longer. The emissions were happening. From our standpoint, we wanted the emissions to stop as soon as possible.”
About 80 percent of companies operating in the state’s oil patch are taking part, he said. The program differs slightly by company, but workers look for problems at wells, like spills or hissing noises. Companies submit reports monthly to the state.
Twice a year, workers bring infrared cameras to sites to detect leaks.
“They don’t want to be exposed either to any leaks,” Semerad said.
While he says the public at large is safe, that’s not always the case for oil workers -- some of whom have died from inhaling high concentrations of toxic gases.
So far, Semerad said he believes the voluntary program has been successful. Two years ago when state inspectors would visit a site, he said it was “very common” they would find a leak.
“It is now relatively uncommon to see anything leaking,” he said.
But some are skeptical of the oil industry’s ability to monitor itself, like Lisa DeVille with the Dakota Resource Council. Her concerns come after what she deems a poor environmental record on the part of some companies, as she’s witnessed the aftermath of pipeline spills and lackluster cleanup efforts.
“Industry isn't reliable,” she said. “They will lie to make sure that they're covered. To tell you the truth, I don’t know if they would properly do the testing.”
Semerad says North Dakota could create a rule down the road targeting leaks after evaluating its voluntary program.
Meanwhile, the EPA has proposed a two-year delay for its rules. This week marked the end of the public comment period on that proposal. The regulations went into effect at the beginning of this month.