In mid-January, a high-pressure system brought snow and cold temperatures into northern Utah, producing the exact weather conditions that scientists needed to study winter ozone pollution in the heavily drilled Uinta Basin.
State and federal officials quickly dispatched a SWAT team of air pollution researchers to the rural, northeastern corner of Utah. Over the course of the next few weeks, the scientists reported significantly elevated levels of ozone pollution.
By early February, as a cold-weather air inversion settled over the snow-covered region, the ozone readings soared to levels considered unhealthy for sensitive populations.
Ozone concentrations climbed to 0.137 parts per million near the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge and 0.109 ppm in Roosevelt on Feb. 6, according to preliminary data from automated air monitors run by the state and other sources. Levels above 0.075 ppm are considered a health hazard.
At elevated concentrations, ozone is caustic and can cause severe respiratory problems. The American Lung Association compares ozone exposure to "a sunburn on the lungs."
Historically, ground-level ozone has been reported in urban areas during hot, stagnant summer weather. But in recent years, scientists unexpectedly discovered potentially dangerous levels of winter ozone in two Western oil and gas-producing regions -- Utah's Uinta Basin and Wyoming's Green River Basin.
Scientists are scrambling to study the new phenomena. "There's a lot of fundamental work being done now because it's such a unique problem," noted Carl Daly, director of air quality in EPA's Denver office.
"It's definitely opened some eyes. Now people are starting to look in other areas of the country to see if they might have similar situations."
Utah's wintertime ozone study is the first step in the state's effort to identify and clean up the Uinta Basin's air pollution while at the same time expanding oil and gas development in the energy-rich region.
This winter's air pollution problems have drawn the attention of state legislators. On Monday, Democratic lawmakers announced plans to introduce a package of bills that would expand public access to mass transportation and require businesses and public agencies to develop pollution reduction plans. Republican legislators, who control the state House, are working on separate proposals to improve Utah's air quality.
The state is hoping to avoid the fate of Wyoming's Green River Basin, which EPA last year declared in nonattainment for ozone pollution (EnergyWire, May 7, 2012).
Federal regulators gave Wyoming three years to improve air quality or face tougher regulatory mandates. The state's cleanup plan is expected to focus on curbing pollution from oil and gas operations and from car and truck traffic in the region.
In Utah, state environmental regulators hope to convince energy companies to voluntarily curb their emissions. "We're trying to foster an environment in the basin where we can allow for energy development expansion while driving down emissions voluntarily," said Brock LeBaron, deputy division director at Utah's Air Quality Administration.
However, it is doubtful that Utah can cut pollution levels quickly enough to avoid increased federal oversight, noted Leonard Herr, an air resource specialist for the Bureau of Land Management, which oversees energy development on federal and tribal lands.
"There's great hope that we can solve this problem pretty quickly," he said. "But are we going to be able to solve it quick enough to avoid nonattainment? Probably not."
Some oil and gas companies fear that voluntary measures might be forgotten if the region is designated a nonattainment area and EPA pushes for dramatic pollution reductions.
"A company can find itself in a Catch-22 situation if they do the right thing to control emissions today," noted Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs at Western Energy Alliance. "Then, if the area goes into nonattainment, there's no guarantee they'll get credit for the good work they did up front."
At the same time, EPA is being pressured by environmental activists to crack down on Utah's drillers.
In July, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and WildEarth Guardians filed a lawsuit claiming that EPA already has enough data to prove that the region is in violation of federal ozone standards (E&ENews PM, July 23, 2012).
They say postponing more aggressive federal air pollution controls is only worsening the ozone problem. "Our view is that the EPA is dragging its feet and the public health is being compromised as a result of it," said Brian Moench, president of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment.
Added Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance staff attorney David Garbett: "We can't add more wells to the current mix and expect that air quality is going to improve."
'A crown jewel of energy resources'
The Uinta Basin is an energy-rich region of northeastern Utah that is bordered on the north by the Uinta Mountains and the south by the Book Cliffs. The local population, now estimated at 52,000, seesaws depending on the intensity of local oil and gas development.
Gov. Gary Herbert (R) ranks oil and gas development as a key economic driver for Utah and is pushing the federal government to open more public lands for energy development. And local government officials are eager to expand oil and gas development in the region. "We live in a crown jewel of energy resources," Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee said. "We could play a very important role in making Utah and America energy independent."
The basin contains massive pockets of unconventional oil and gas resources. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the local oil shale formations hold roughly 1.32 trillion barrels of oil and the oil sands zones hold at least 18,680 million barrels of oil. The state estimates its untapped natural gas reserves at 7,147 trillion cubic feet.
About 4,200 oil wells and 7,000 gas wells are currently operating in Utah, according to the state Division of Oil, Gas and Mining. That number is destined to grow as state and federal regulators open the door to new oil and gas projects in the region.
Last year, BLM approved two massive natural gas extraction projects in the region, allowing Anadarko Petroleum Corp. to sink 3,675 wells and Gasco Energy Inc. to drill nearly 1,300 wells. In each case, the energy companies agreed to limit their air pollution and avoid some ecologically important lands on their leases.
Herr said BLM is currently reviewing several other proposed drilling projects. "I think you'll see a couple of interesting projects come out of Utah with quite novel approaches to reducing emissions," he said.
"When companies come to us, we want them to bring emissions reductions plans, not only to limit their pollution but to reduce emissions from the equipment they have out in the field right now."
However, environmentalists insist that energy industry's environmental measures don't go far enough. A coalition of conservation groups last month filed suit against the Obama administration for approving the Gasco project, which they say will degrade local air quality and harm sensitive wildlife habitat (E&ENews PM, Jan. 22).
What's causing ozone peaks?
In 2009, Utah officials, concerned that Wyoming had found unhealthy levels of ozone pollution in its oil and gas region, decided to conduct their own winter spot-checks in the Uinta Basin's oil and gas fields.
Since ozone has always been considered a summertime problem, scientists had usually shut off their air monitors in the winter.
"That year, we left our ozone monitors on all winter and -- boom -- we got some really high values," Utah air quality regulator LeBaron recalled.
Since then, preliminary studies have linked Utah's air pollution problems to local weather conditions in conjunction with the region's topography. Ozone levels tend to rise when there's snow on the ground and cold weather inversions cause air to stagnate in the bowl-shaped region.
Under those conditions, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide pollution emitted mostly by drilling operations are converted into ozone by sunlight and heat reflecting off the snowpack.
But BLM's Herr noted that scientists can't explain specifically what triggers the sudden peaks in ozone pollution that have been recorded in the basin. They are also not sure which pollutants are the most potent ozone precursors.
"We need to understand the photochemistry, what pollutants are in the air and where they're coming from," he noted.
To better analyze the problem, last year the state, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, EPA, Utah State University, industry groups, local governments and the Ute Tribe began a three-year air monitoring program for ozone pollution. The groups poured $5.5 million into the research project.
EPA requires three years of air quality data to help regulators determine whether a region is in violation of federal air pollution standards.
Last year, however, Utah ozone levels stayed below federal health standards all winter long.
"It was kind of frustrating," LeBaron noted. "We didn't have much snow cover. We didn't have any inversions. It was almost the warmest winter on record. So there was no elevated ozone."
Instead, researchers used the time to identify the sources of ozone-causing emissions in the region. Those studies found that the highest levels of VOCs were coming from the basin's eastern natural gas-producing region.
The nitrogen oxide pollution was elevated in the western oil fields and around the population centers near Vernal and Roosevelt. The scientists also found unusually high levels of methanol, which can accelerate ozone formation.
This year, LeBaron said the scientific teams are recording a steady stream of ozone levels above EPA's air quality standards. The air quality monitors are also reporting levels of fine particulates that exceed federal permitted levels.
Better air through technology
To tackle the basin's pollution problems, state and federal regulators are pushing oil and gas companies to use the best available technologies when drilling in the region. Utah officials are encouraging energy companies to offset pollution from new drilling projects by installing cleaner equipment at older legacy operations in the Uinta Basin.
Regulators also predict that two new federal air pollution control programs will help reduce the basin's ozone levels.
Last year, EPA issued a New Source Performance Standard requiring new oil and gas extraction projects to lower their VOC pollution. The agency also expanded air quality rules for new energy development on tribal lands, which make up a large portion of the Uinta Basin.
If the Utah ozone study shows that the region violates federal air quality standards, EPA has the authority to require the state to take aggressive action to cut all ozone-forming pollution. Until then, however, state and federal regulators have few legal levers to force industry to cut emissions at its older operations.
Instead, the agency recently created the federal Ozone Advance program to encourage industry to voluntarily cut pollution in states that have serious air pollution problems but have not yet been ranked as being in nonattainment.
Utah signed onto the program in May and is now working with federal regulators and energy companies on an action plan for the Uinta Basin.
EPA's Daly said companies that voluntarily cut their emissions under the Ozone Advance program might face less stringent pollution control mandates in the future if the region is declared a nonattainment area.
"A state could factor those early actions into their attainment plan," Daly explained. "Maybe the state would require less of those companies than they would of a firm that didn't take action earlier."
"That said," he added, "If the area still needs more reductions, even after some good voluntary reductions have been taken, additional cuts will still have to happen."
For the near term, however, energy producers and local residents are urging the federal government to cautiously study the Uinta Basin's wintertime ozone problem before imposing new mandates that might deter new oil and gas development.
"We're already controlling our pollution on new development," noted Sgamma of the Western energy group. "But we need to get the foundational science first before we make any kind of determination on other control projects."
McKee of the Uintah County Commission argued that regulators should consider the need for jobs before they impose new environmental mandates that could discourage businesses from coming to the region.
"There are some here who believe that we might have winter ozone even if you didn't have oil and gas going on up here," McKee said. "How much are we affected by air contaminants that come in from other areas? Is it possible that ozone is occurring naturally from cracks in the earth?"
But Moench of the Utah physicians group argued that the elevated ozone pollution levels in the Uinta Basin require immediate action.
Last month, Moench and a group of more than 100 health care professionals sent a letter to Gov. Herbert asking him to declare a public health emergency because of the severe air pollution in the Uinta Basin and the Salt Lake City region.
"I think continued development in the Uinta Basin is insanity," said Moench, an anesthesiologist. "The whole drilling boom needs to be slowed down significantly."
"Ozone causes virtually all the same sorts of physiological consequences and disease consequences as cigarette smoke," he added. "People are affected by the ozone, even if they don't feel it."
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