When the weather is just right in Sublette County, the air pollution is almost as bad as the worst days in Los Angeles.
Those particular weather conditions — sun, snow on the ground, temperatures between 17 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit, winds less than 23 mph and air pressure of 700 mb at 10,000 feet — combine with fossil fuel emissions, causing a chemical reaction that produces ozone.
In 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011 and 2017 ozone concentrations in Sublette County met or exceeded the newest Environmental Protection Agency limit of 70 parts per billion. In 2008 and 2011 ozone concentrations reached a lung-burning 122 and 123 parts per billion.
For comparison, Los Angeles’ worst recorded ozone level topped out at 132 parts per billion in 1978. LA and nearby cities in California are typically ranked worst in the nation for ozone, including in 2017.
So on some days, Sublette County, population 10,057, has air quality nearly as bad or worse than Los Angeles County, population 10.12 million.
During “ozone alerts” the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality typically warns Sublette County residents to avoid physical activity outdoors. Children, the elderly and people with respiratory diseases are particularly vulnerable.
Welcome to the Wild West! (Cough, cough.)
Bad news for air, wildlife
The resurrection of a plan for gas drilling south of and contiguous with the Pinedale Anticline and the Jonah Field won’t help.
The Normally Pressurized Lance Project would infill 220 square miles of Bureau of Land Management leases with up to 3,500 wells. If the plan moves forward, the leaseholder, Jonah Energy, hopes to drill 350 wells per year for the next decade. Break out the gas masks.
In addition to air quality concerns, the project is terrible for wildlife.
For starters, industry would concentrate drilling efforts at the southern end of the Path of the Pronghorn. With the Jonah Field and the Pinedale Anticline to the north, the La Barge infill to the West, and additional leases to the east, there’s little doubt that the Normally Pressurized Lance field imperils the migration route, considered the longest terrestrial migration in the lower 48 states.
Sage grouse and mule deer are also sure to suffer. Biologists say drilling activity has already killed off half of the mesa’s mule deer population and a third of its sage grouse.
The plan for more wells comes after Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke announced plans to ease restrictions in sage grouse habitat while at the same time stepping up the pace of energy development on federal lands. The toxic combination of more drilling and fewer protections for grouse could mean even more lost habitat, triggering an Endangered Species Act review.
Even without the additional 3,500 wells, the breakneck pace of energy development in Sublette County has already resulted in real consequences. The air quality and wildlife problems prove it.
Allowing such a large project as the Normally Pressurized Lance gas field to move forward in a place that’s already so compromised would only exacerbate those problems. Federal and state officials would turn Sublette County into a sacrifice zone for air quality and wildlife.
In 2011 Dawn Mitchell, a day care teacher in Pinedale, gave this heartbreaking quote to The New York Times: “If poor air quality is what I have to live with, then that’s a choice I make. I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
But the thing is, Sublette County residents don’t have to live with poor air quality. The public should demand that Wyoming DEQ and BLM officials follow through on protecting health and wildlife.
Stopping the Normally Pressurized Lance gas field would be a great first step.
The online version of this column has been edited to reflect that Sublette County also exceeded federal ozone standards in 2017. — Ed.