Senator contests new DEQ restrictions of oilfield pollution

CHEYENNE – A powerful state senator chided environmental regulators Thursday after they proposed tightening the amount of pollutants a company can release from the Moneta Divide gas- and oilfield.

Former Senate president and current chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee Eli Bebout (R-Riverton) wrote the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality saying members of his appropriations committee are concerned the agency will “backtrack” on agreements they made with Aethon Energy. The DEQ originally proposed renewing a discharge permit that would allow the company to dump 8.2 million gallons of tainted water a day into drainages above Boysen Reservoir. 

The original renewal also would have allowed the company to pump more than 1,000 of tons each of sodium and sulfate a month into flows from the Moneta Divide field. Aethon and Burlington Resources want to expand the 800-well field by 4,250 wells.

But after public hearings and more than 450 comments, the DEQ instead proposed a permit with stricter controls. The revised permit would maintain the previous flow limits to around 2 million gallons a day, cap the salt (sodium and sulfate) output at 908 tons a month and limit the concentration of chloride in the discharged water.

The revised permit also would have nine new requirements that are not part of Aethon’s existing discharge authorization at the Moneta Divide.

Bebout wrote that Aethon contacted committee members about the proposed new permit and that the committee wants to ensure “fundamental principles of fairness.” The committee also wants to see that the DEQ meets its mission that calls, in part, for the agency “to plan the development and use of the resources of the State” and retain state control over its air, land and water.

“It has been stated to us that extensive meetings and modeling efforts and an initial draft permit was agreed to by the DEQ and the permit holder, and that the initial draft was in fact defended by the DEQ,” Bebout’s letter reads. “If this is correct it is difficult to understand how the Division can require new conditions, especially if the new conditions are a departure from existing and historic processes as claimed by the permit holder.

“Primary among our concerns is that the State not backtrack on agreements reached in the permitting process,” Bebout’s letter reads.

Bebout is chairman and president of Nucor Oil & Gas and chairman and vice president of Nucor, Inc/Nucor Drilling, Inc, both Riverton companies, according to state disclosure forms. Nucor Inc/Nucor Drilling Inc holds a contract with the DEQ’s Abandoned Mine Land Division, according to Bebout’s disclosures. DEQ paid Bebout’s Nucor companies more than $35 million for work between 2013 and 2018, according to Open the Books, a public-interest organization that tracks state payments.

His senate district covers large parts of Fremont County, where most of the Moneta Divide gas and oilfield is located, but appears to stop short of the field itself.

Regulations clearly contemplate that a draft permit can be changed following public input. They require that the DEQ respond to public comments. DEQ responses must say which provisions of the draft are being changed and why. Similarly, the agency must also document why any comments did not result in a change. DEQ must make all that information public.

“We are concerned that Senator Bebout, an oilman himself, would write this letter to DEQ on state letterhead in his capacity as Chairman of the Appropriations Committee, which oversees DEQ’s budget,” the Powder River Basin Resource Council said in a statement to WyoFile. “It makes the letter look like an attempt to bully and intimidate the Department into approving a permit.

“Unfortunately, Senator Bebout fails to look at the facts. The photos and the water quality data from the discharge of this oil and gas wastewater clearly shows there is a serious pollution problem that has damaged these streams and threatens the water quality of Boysen Reservoir and the Wind River,” the letter reads. “Science and the law, not political conflict of interest, must rule in order to protect our water.”

Bebout rejected the council’s assertions. “I have no interest in Moneta Divide,” he told WyoFile. “I have an interest to represent my constituents. In fact our statutes say that absent any obviously personal conflict, which I do not have, I’m obligated to represent my constituents which is exactly what I’m doing.

“I will continue to do that and I will use letterhead stationary to do that,” Bebout said. He was elected to represent his constituents, not the Powder River Basin Resource Council, he said.

“As far as their comments about me failing to look at the facts, I would say they don’t look at the facts,” he continued. Aethon and others did a lot of study, he said, but after proposing the first permit renewal, regulators “moved the goalposts.”

He touted the economic potential of an expanded Moneta Divide field, projected to raise millions in tax money for the county, state and schools. All that will occur “in a very sound, responsible manner,” Bebout said. “They’ve been doing it that way for 50 years.”

“What the Powder River Basin Resource Council ought to do is go to a meeting in Riverton and talk to all the people there,” Bebout said. “Don’t talk to me about some letterhead.” 

Bebout said he hasn’t worked for Aethon lately but would welcome the chance to do so.

Today is the deadline for comment on the revised draft renewal permit. DEQ has twice rejected requests by conservation groups to extend the comment deadline for the revised draft renewal permit. The agency granted one extension on the original renewal request last year.

Many commenters sought changes to Aethon’s permit during the original renewal review. DEQ logged 453 comments last summer in response to the original renewal proposal. Many opposed the discharge plan or called for changes according to a WyoFile review of the records. Hearings in Riverton and Thermopolis collectively drew more than 300 people.

An Aethon representative wrote that the permit satisfies regulations and is more protective compared to previous authorizations. But others raised questions, including Thermopolis Mayor Mike Chimenti who asked in a letter “why is it okay to use our water sources as dumping grounds for waste?”

Agriculture could be at risk, others said, including the Hot Springs Conservation District which challenged a claim that the flows meet the requirement to be of beneficial use.

Bebout said that requirement for discharges had been met. “The surface discharge of water from the field involved in this application has apparently been put to beneficial use for livestock and wildlife for decades,” his letter reads.

The Conservation district has a different view. “Our concern is that farmers and ranchers utilizing the discharged water in the Moneta Divide area, for irrigation, may in the long term, cause soils to become so salinized that they are no longer suitable for agricultural or wildlife purposes,” wrote Sonja L Becker, chairwoman of the district.

Wyoming Game and Fish Department also questioned the benefit of the tainted water. DEQ found discharges carried an average of around 2,200 milligrams per liter of chloride. 

In the new permit, it wants Aethon to reduce that to 230 mg/L, the standard for Badwater Creek, the recipient of the discharged water, under state rules. DEQ also found free oil, foam, and black sediment below discharges and wrote Aethon to say it had violated its discharge permit. 

Produced water discharges may be responsible for “the lack of fish” in Badwater Creek downstream from where pollution flows in from Alkali Creek, Wyoming Game and Fish Department wrote.

Some oppose Aethon’s original dumping proposal because the flows would go into Boysen State Park. Allowing the dumping of 8.2 million gallons a day of pollutants into such recreational waters “goes counter to your mission,” the Hot Springs Conservation District wrote of Aethon’s original plan.

DEQ would “violate its own regulations,” added the Hot Springs County Natural Resources Planning Committee. It called Aethon’s original plan “unacceptable” and a detriment to downstream agriculture because of salinity.

Discharges would flow into the Wind River Reservation, tribal member Micah Carpenter-Lott wrote, “putting Wyoming’s most vulnerable people at risk for short-lived gains.” Wyoming and its grandchildren require long-term care and respect, international angling innovator Yvon Chouinard wrote. “Do no harm isn’t for doctors alone,” his comment reads.

Bebout’s fellow committee member Sen. Mike Gierau (D-Jackson) provided WyoFile the text of Bebout’s letter. 

Bebout wrote Gierau that the correspondence was “[a] comment letter I sent out on Moneta Divide as Chairman of the Senate Apps. Committee, but not the committee.” The letter itself, obtained by WyoFile through a records request, is on Senate Appropriations Committee stationery. “It was merely to highlight my title,” Bebout’s email to Gierau reads.a

Bebout signed the letter above his appropriations committee title. 

“Senator Bebout told us about the letter” Gierau wrote WyoFile. “As stated, we as a group had discussed the situation. Based on what I have been told I too am concerned about how we were told how this all went down.”

Bebout wrote the DEQ that he understood the agency defended the initial draft. “If this is correct it is difficult to understand how the Division can require new conditions,” his letter reads, “especially if the new conditions are a departure from existing and historic processes as claimed by the permit holder.”

He complained that DEQ is now proposing impossible limits, writing that Aethon asserts that “laboratory methods do not exist to measure compliance with at least one” of the new proposed standards. 

Aethon did not respond over the weekend or on Presidents Day to an email asking for clarification regarding that standard. The DEQ also did not respond over two and a half business days to requests for comments on the new permit and its process for adopting it.

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