Utah’s current drought conditions have raised public awareness toward water scarcity and water conservation by water users. It highlights the importance of protecting all potential water supplies both on the surface and underground.
Division staff takes these principles very seriously in our work to regulate and require responsible development of the state’s underground energy and mineral resources. It takes water to develop energy resources and it takes energy resources to develop water.
The Energy-Water Nexus is well-recognized by both the private sector and policymakers in government. Division staff belongs to the national association of state oil/gas and water regulators known as the Ground Water Protection Council (GWPC) that has established itself as a knowledge-based organization dedicated to protecting the nation’s groundwater resources, especially as it relates to the extraction of underground petroleum resources. The association is non-profit and is organized into work groups and committees that produce valuable information regarding hydraulic fracture stimulation in the oil and gas industry, produced water reuse, aquifer storage and recovery, source water protection, carbon capture utilization and storage, and groundwater data collection and management.
GWPC is holding its annual forum at the Sheraton Hotel in Salt Lake City on September 27 – 29. Subject matter experts and representatives from state regulatory agencies nationwide will convene to provide presentations and discuss pertinent information to the overall concept of the Energy-Water Nexus. The event is not only timely for Utah and other western states as drought conditions worsen, but it is also the first in-person meeting of the GWPC after two years of virtual meetings and conferences.
For more information about the 2021 GWPC Annual Forum in Salt Lake City, visit www.gwpc.org.
During the 2020 General Legislative Session, the Utah legislature passed Senate Bill 148 requiring the Division of Oil, Gas and Mining to modify the process for imposing and collecting administrative penalties.
Division staff worked with interested stakeholders to revise the current administrative rules regarding final orders, administrative remedies, and create a new rule establishing rules and procedures for imposing and collecting administrative penalties. Penalty rules were approved at the May 26 Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining (UBOGM) Hearing.
Below are highlights of R649-11, however the full rule is available here:
A Notice of Violation (NOV) describes the nature of the violation, action required, amount of time operators have to resolve violations, and a description of the operation/location.
Operators can resolve violations during the time specified in the NOV without receiving a penalty.
If violations are not resolved in the specified time listed in the NOV, the penalty accrual starts at the time the NOV was originally issued.
Operators can request a compliance conference with Division staff if they disagree with the NOV.
A Division assessment officer will determine whether a penalty will be assessed and if so, what amount. There are three classes of penalties, with a maximum Division penalty of $5,000/day and a Board maximum penalty of $10,000/day. Administrative penalties can reach a maximum of $200,000 per penalty.
Operators can appeal penalties to the UBOGM. Division staff now has clearly defined procedures to hold non-compliant operators fiscally responsible for violations not addressed. This rule provides Oil and Gas Program inspectors with an enforcement tool that ensures Utah’s resources are being developed responsibly.
Each year, the Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining presents Environmental Excellence Awards to companies, organizations or individuals who go above and beyond what is required by regulation to protect the environment, while developing Utah’s natural resources.
Awards are presented in the areas of oil and gas, minerals mining and coal mining. Specific award categories are environmental improvement to an active mine site, exploration site, or producing field; outstanding results following applications of innovative environmental technology; and outstanding final reclamation or site restoration.
The following companies received Environmental Excellence Awards for 2021:
American Gilsonite Company (AGC)– Outstanding reclamation in the Bonanza area of Uintah County: AGC reclaimed 14 total locations, including nine full mine sites, amounting to over 20% of their total reclamation obligations. They went beyond regulations by capping shafts using methods that ensure long term stability, separated materials for recycling, and are promoting successful regrowth of vegetation through researched seed selection, moisture retainment, and additional water for improved germination. Although Uintah County was among the Utah counties hardest hit by unemployment due to Covid, AGS was able to keep vital employees working through one of the most difficult times in the company’s history.
Caerus Uinta, LLC: Outstanding final reclamation at the Greater Natural Buttes site in Uintah County: From October 2020 to February 2021, Caerus staff reclaimed, contoured, and seeded approximately 108 acres. They focused on soil amendments, native soil nutrient needs, and native custom seed mixes. Soil samples taken throughout the area indicated the native desert soil was deficient in important plant nutrients including nitrogen, phosphate, and zinc. By amending the compost with crucial nutrients and tailoring the amount of compost used, the reclaimed sites were designed for peak native seed germination and vegetation establishment. Caerus Uinta’s goal is to implement more science-based advanced seeding methods into their reclamation projects.
Canyon Fuels Company, LLC- Skyline Mine- Public/private partnership yielding environmental improvement- The Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining’s Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program nominated Canyon Fuel Company’s Skyline Mine for its material support to the program’s Clear Creek Refuse Piles reclamation project. The mine’s donation of waste storage capacity at its refuse disposal site resulted in substantial cost saving to the program and facilitated the overall planning and execution of the reclamation.
Dominion Energy Questar Pipeline, LLC- Methane Emissions Reduction Program: Since 2019 Dominion Energy Questar Pipeline, LLC has implemented a methane reduction program across its operating footprint. Dominion Energy Questar Pipeline has prevented over 267 million cubic feet of natural gas from being emitted into the atmosphere. This volume equates to removing 3,165 passenger vehicles from the road or heating 1,690 homes for one year.
The program consists of modifying infrastructure, improving systems, and several voluntary initiatives such as sending methane to adjacent low pressure pipeline systems instead of venting during maintenance.
Through this program, Dominion Energy Questar Pipeline has reduced the percentage of methane gas saved during maintenance events along pipelines and at stations by 86% in 2019 and 90% in 2020.
Manti- La Sal National Forest- Compliance Enforcement and Outreach: The Manti-La Sal National Forest Service Minerals Team went above and beyond regulatory requirements to keep the public safe when an operator reopened an abandoned mine without authorization, sending sediment into a perennial creek approximately ½ mile upstream from Blanding’s water supply intake.
They quickly responded, coordinating with several outside agencies and stakeholders to protect public health and properly close the mine.
Marathon Petroleum Corporation (MPLX)- Environmental improvement to an active drilling site: MPLX developed a quarterly oil and gas industry best management practice program at its Ironhorse gas processing facility and compressors station, which is not subject to federal regulation. The program includes inspections to quickly identify large leaks and minimize emissions into the Uintah Basin, working to preserve Utah’s vital oil and gas supply while protecting the environment.
In 2020, repairs of leaks found during quarterly monitoring reduced emissions from 249,672 pounds of volatile organic compound to 62,615 pounds, the energy saving equivalent to the CO2 output of supplying 254 homes with power for a year.
Steve Demczak works in the Division’s Coal Program as a reclamation specialist III and mining engineer. He has been with the Division for almost 31 years. His main responsibility is conducting environmental inspections of Utah coal mines to ensure compliance with laws and rules. Steve also performs inspections with the Office of Surface Mine (OSM), a federal agency. He is the sole reviewer of minor coal explorations notices of intent to mine. Recently, Steve was assigned to assess violations for the Minerals Program including environmental impact and financial penalties.
Steve’s favorite part of his job is providing his knowledge and experience to operators looking for recommendations for solving problems and issues. He also enjoys exchanging ideas with co-workers and those in the industry.
Steve received an associate degree in Pre-Engineering from the College of Eastern Utah and a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mining Engineering from the University of Utah. He has worked underground in coal mines in Utah as a foreman and mining engineer.
When Steve is not working, he enjoys traveling with his wife especially to Ukraine, her native country, to sight-see and learn Russian. He loves home remodeling projects and is a sports car enthusiast.
Two news articles caught my attention this past month. The first one described a proposed lithium mine in northern Nevada. Lithium is a key component used for large storage batteries in electric vehicles and for energy storage.
Of main concern was the potential impacts to nearby rural communities including traffic, noise, nighttime lighting, air and water quality, and the effect that an influx of numerous workers would have on rural communities. These same impacts could play out at other sites throughout the western U.S. and in Utah where lithium deposits may be found.
If the dream of an electric vehicle transportation fleet is to become reality, these impacts must be addressed.
The second article was an opinion piece by Mr. Thom Carter, Energy Advisor to Governor Spencer Cox, who wrote about the need for extractive energy and mining operations to keep an “all of the above” energy mix of renewable and non-renewable energy projects active in Utah. He provided the message that “keep it in the ground” was not possible if we wish to produce the critical minerals necessary to manufacture solar panels, wind turbines, and all the energy storage and power transmission infrastructure to keep renewable energy moving. His premise is that “advocating for renewable energy sources also means maintaining, if not expanding, our mining infrastructure.” I totally agree with his point of view.
The bottom line is that the development of renewable and non-renewable energy and the production of critical minerals is not a zero-sum scenario vis-à-vis the importance of climate change, public land management, environmental impacts, or economic benefits to rural communities. It is not one or the other of two competing alternatives, because the goal of a more livable world for people relies on those materials that we can extract from the earth. All considerations must be weighed in the balance to produce the best possible outcome for Utah citizens.
Division of Oil, Gas and Mining staff attempts to perform its regulatory function in this manner. We do not pick winners and losers in the extractive industries based on political or ideological preference. Our decision-making on permit approvals and compliance enforcement are science and logic-based and designed to achieve acceptable outcomes for responsible development. I truly believe that we can find innovative solutions to many of the challenges facing humanity as we work collaboratively to achieve a better quality of life through energy and mineral development.
Division management recently selected Ammon McDonald as the new Oil and Gas Program Operations Manager. This position manages and oversees field staff, with a priority on ensuring they have the proper tools and adequate resources to successfully complete their jobs.
Since 2011, Ammon has worked for the Division as a geologist/environmental scientist III where he was responsible for the permitting and inspection of Class II underground injection control (UIC) wells and waste disposal facilities. He conducted a variety of inspections and investigations ensuring compliance with Division’s rules. He provided technical expertise to staff members, the Utah Board of Oil, Gas and Mining, other government agencies, and the public.
In 2008 he began working for the Utah Geological Survey as a geological technician where his duties included digitizing well logs, constructing base maps using GIS software, conducting digital core photography, data analysis and compilation, sample collection, and field work.
Prior to 2008, Ammon was a staff geologist/environmental scientist for IHI Environmental where he conducted environmental site assessments, fugitive emissions and ambient air monitoring, soil and groundwater sampling, and borehole core logging.
Ammon graduated from the University of Utah with Bachelor of Science Degrees in Chemistry and Geology.
The Division’s Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program (AMRP), in cooperation with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), safeguarded 29 abandoned mine openings in the Mineral Canyon area in Grand County in mid-April. Closure methods included metal grates, machine backfills, and native stone walls designed to protect features of historic significance and animal habitat, while protecting the public from injuries or death. Abandoned mines are hazardous because they are no longer maintained, lack ventilation, and may collapse.
The BLM Moab Field Office designated Mineral Canyon as a high priority for abandoned mine closures due to high visitation and recreational use areas in the Mineral Bottom area. Mineral Bottom accesses Canyonlands National Park (White Rim Trail), Green River boat ramp, campground, and airstrip. Mineral Canyon’s Fruit Bowl area, located on a rim above the canyon, is used for high-lining and base jumping. Mineral Bottom also provides a designated area for high-lining, base jumping, and parachuting events in the Canyon/Horsethief BASE Jumping Focus Area.
Mineral Canyon was a modest uranium and vanadium producer having mineral discoveries and production beginning in the early to mid-1950s.
The project was funded by grants from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement (OSMRE,) BLM and Department of Energy (DOE).
Josh Payne is the compliance manager for the Division’s Oil and Gas Program and has been with the Division for 15 years. He is responsible for ensuring compliance with Division rules and regulations and monitoring and resolving outstanding issues or problems. He credits program teamwork and the framework of Division rules and regulations as successful tools used in protecting the public and the environment while promoting responsible development.
The best things Josh enjoys about his job is the flexible work schedule that creates a good work-life balance and the people with whom he works.
Josh’s career started in petroleum supply in the Army in 2001. He is a standardization instructor and maintenance pilot in the Utah Army National Guard, which requires extensive compliance with regulations. He has flown for the military for the past 15 years and is always in awe when looking at the world from above.
Josh is from Utah but has lived all over the world. He enjoys spending time outdoors, especially with his family. His to-do list is never ending and usually includes a new home project or woodworking hobby.
New years are always a time for transition and renewal, and boy, do we need some renewal after the last year! Now is a time to look forward with hope and commitment to seeing better days ahead.
We have worked hard this past year not only to keep the machine of government humming, but to move faster and farther down the road of progress than before. Some notable accomplishments include:
Shortly after in-person office work was curtailed in March, we used electronic tools previously developed to move seamlessly into a new remote workplace.
Electronic permitting and reporting have been in place for several years
allowing continued interaction with the regulated community with very few hiccups.
Division field inspectors were able to extend their reach with remote work processes for
collecting data and recording information on our databases.
Staff implemented new tools for prioritizing workloads, inspection frequency, and monitoring
conditions in areas of higher concern.
Board of Oil, Gas and Mining hearings are being held remotely for both Board members and participants. Meetings have been held in a hybrid in-person/electronic format for several years, so the transition was relatively simple.
Many have questioned the need to return to a fully in-person workplace as we have seen
benefits of more efficient communication between managers and staff, employees working
within their own flexible schedules, and the improvements in air quality. At some point, we will likely return to a hybrid telework scenario with fewer employees onsite, but still deriving the benefits of remote work.
Recognizing that we are also faced with a transition of governmental administration in
Washington DC, the new year brings substantial uncertainty for the extent of new federal
policy and the impact of those changes on Utah’s economy and quality of life. The commitment
from Division staff to continue meeting our responsibilities is unwavering. We will continue to ensure
responsible development of our underground energy and mineral resources while protecting
the public health, safety and welfare and preserving the environment. We like to think that our
efforts will continue regardless of who is in White House, and our processes for continuous
improvement will forge ahead.
While this past year presented us all with challenges and unforeseen circumstances, Division staff moved forward completing projects and adapting to new ways of doing business. Below are a few of the highlights from 2020.
Coal Program staff helped coal operators navigate the regulatory path nimbly and efficiently to continue their work. Skyline Mine operators determined that additional power was required for continued operations of their long wall miner. A corridor had previously been approved, however a larger corridor for the above ground powerline was needed, requiring additional permitting. Due to time constraints with the onset of winter, staff worked closely with the operator to get the additional permitting finalized so the powerline corridor could be completed.
Deer Creek Mine Reclamation of the Deer Creek mine was completed in late 2019. During 2020 spring runoff, several rills and gullies began to form on the reclaimed slopes. The operator and program staff immediately mobilized to the site and began working through the regulatory issues associated with repairing the erosion. A rogue culvert unknown during the operation of the Deer Creek Mine was identified as the issue. On-site field visits and conference calls with federal agencies were conducted to address regulatory issues and allow the operator to continue repair work before winter.
On March 20, Division staff was notified that operations at the Lisbon Valley Mine in southeastern Utah had shut down. The Division subsequently issued an order for final reclamation to be complete by September 30, 2021. Over the next several months program staff spent many hours overseeing reclamation operations and reviewing the mine plan and reclamation cost estimate. In January 2021, the operator submitted an adequate bond and obtained Division approval to re-start operations.
In December 2019, staff issued tentative approval of the revised Notice of Intention (NOI) for the Benjamin Quarry in Utah County. This decision was appealed informally to the Division by concerned area residents and then formally to the Board of Oil, Gas and Mining, which upheld the Division’s decision to approve the NOI with certain conditions. One issue of the appeal included the concern for petroglyphs around the mine.
Staff continue using tablets to record inspections and are working to expand the efficiencies by developing an inspection prioritization application. The tablets help inspectors keep track of inspection frequency, which is a major aspect of determining inspection scheduling.
Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program
Despite a slow and unusual start to the construction season due to the uncertainties presented by COVID, the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program (AMRP) completed two coal and six non-coal abandoned mine reclamation projects this year.
Coal reclamation consisted of the Clear Creek Refuse Reclamation Project and the Hiawatha Culvert Maintenance Project located in Carbon County. Non-coal projects closed a total of 170 hazardous abandoned mines and completed maintenance at 30 previously closed mine openings. Projects included the completion of the Spor Project in Juab County that began in the fall of 2019, the White and Deer Flat Project in San Juan County, Phase I of the Willard Peak Project in Weber County, the Westdip Bat Cupola Project in Tooele County, and the Buckmaster-OIG Project in Emery County. Maintenance projects included the Jacob City Maintenance Project in Tooele County, and the Temple Mountain Maintenance Project in Emery County.
The Hiawatha Culvert Maintenance Project was located about 14 miles southwest of Price at the historic Hiawatha mine. In 1914 mine operators built a culvert over a stretch of Miller Creek to accommodate a road crossing. The 200-foot culvert is constructed of large sandstone blocks and features a rare and striking barrel vault top exhibiting fine craftsmanship representative of the Italian and Greek immigrant stonemasonry of the early 20th century.
In 2012, the Seeley forest fire destroyed much of the vegetation on the Wasatch Plateau above Hiawatha. As a result, storms washed trees and rock debris down the watershed. Flooding washed out extensive portions of the century-old culvert walls and AMRP staff feared that the unsupported block culvert walls would collapse into the creek. At best, this would dump sediment in the creek; at worst, the creek could be dammed and risk a catastrophic flood event Besides losing a remarkable cultural feature and road access across the creek, structural failure of the culvert would have a significant effect on water quality and downstream fisheries.
Last September AMRP staff contracted with Strong Solutions, LLC of Fairfield, Utah to stabilized the damaged culvert by replacing the washed-out portions of the walls and floors with reinforced concrete. Immediately downstream of the culvert, a log jam was removed, and a deep gully head cut that threatened to undermine the culvert was stabilized by building a rock drop structure with stairstep basins to allow fish to migrate upstream.
Coal mining at Hiawatha began around 1909 and continued until 1992 with extensive operations in four canyons and in multiple coal seams. The company town of Hiawatha, with a peak population of approximately 1,500 residents in the 1940s, supported the operations.
Oil and Gas Program
The Division’s Oil and Gas Program successfully launched the Field Inspection Prioritization application that uses specific criteria to generate and implement data-driven decisions. Staff has worked with the Groundwater Protection Council (GWPC) to develop and implement the application designed to display in a spatial and report form which oil and gas sites should be inspected according to various inputs.
All oil and gas wells were given a priority rating from one (highest priority) to three (low priority). Prioritization is based on operational factors such as compliance issues and history, age of the well and how long since the last inspection. Geographic factors include well proximity to surface water, groundwater, human population density and wildlife habitat.
The program has been operational since January 2020 and has already helped our inspectors increase their inspection efficiency. The field application allows real time data collection that is automatically uploaded to the database saving inspectors time and reducing input errors. The program empowers program staff to consistently make decisions leading to reduced risk and more effective regulation through timely inspections.
This is an effective tool that will give management and staff the ability to make data driven decisions ensuring protection of Utah’s resources, while promoting responsible development.