SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah Air Quality Board is proposing to revamp the way it regulates the oil and gas industry by streamlining the permitting process of producing wells, which make up more than half of the "minor" source permits in the state.
Utah has 12,300 producing crude oil and natural gas wells, according to 2013 numbers, and ranks 10th in the country for natural gas production and 11th for crude oil production.
The majority of those wells are in eastern Utah's Uinta Basin, which struggles with heavy buildup of ozone air pollution in the winter. Ozone is a public health hazard, causing respiratory issues, eye irritation and chest pain.
A series of proposed rules out for public comment set a new threshold for the amount of emissions, but are designed to create more efficiencies for both the state and the industry.
The change is to a "permit by rule" for future oil and gas sites instead of issuing individual permits.
Sheila Vance, an environmental scientist with the Utah Division of Air Quality, said the move will eliminate several administrative steps that will save on costs for industry that won't have to obtain individual permits.
In a hearing memo on the proposed rules, Vance also wrote that the change will help staff on time because it provides general oversight if all wells have met the requirements.
A public hearing on the proposal was held Thursday and another one to gather feedback will be Wednesday in Vernal.
"We feel it is really good the state is stepping up," said Jon Goldstein, regulatory and legislative affairs director for the Environmental Defense Fund.
Goldstein is among proponents of the rule changes that environmental organizations say will "modernize oversight" of the industry.
"Reducing ozone pollution from oil and gas operations is a clear and simple win for air quality in Utah," Goldstein said.
Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance — which represents independent oil and natural gas producers in Utah and elsewhere in the West — said the association has been working with air quality regulators on some tweaks to the rules where they conflict with federal requirements.
"By and large, we and the state are on board with getting more efficiency into the permitting process," she said.
While Sgamma said the proposed rules are not designed in and of themselves to reduce emissions, that is the likely outcome.
"I think the net effect will be reduced emissions because compliance will be easier. ...The more efficient permitting is, then the easier it is for companies to comply with the rules and make sure they are meeting the standards. And it is more efficient for the state to make sure companies are meeting the standards."
The comment period on the proposed rules will end Nov. 15.