Oil and gas development in an area of Colorado that is in the midst of a huge drilling boom is contributing more than half of the chemical pollution that contributes to the formation of ozone, a new study by University of Colorado scientists has found.
The research by scientists at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado may have important implications for the shale oil and shale gas revolution underway in many parts of the U.S. It may have particular relevance to other rural areas of the West – in the Uinta Basin of northeastern Utah and Sublette County, Wyoming south of Jackson — that have been plagued by high ozone alerts in recent winters, sometimes higher than the Los Angeles basin.
Both the Utah and Wyoming regions have intensive oil and gas development and the ozone alerts in those areas have often been described as a puzzle with possibly many contributing factors. A $5 million study is underway in the Uinta Basin to ferret out the likely causes of the region’s ozone problem. Ozone pollution is a factor in a range of health problems including respiratory illnesses and asthma.
In the Colorado study, published online in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, researchers determined that 55 percent of the airborne volatile organic compounds that contribute to ozone in the town of Erie were coming from oil and gas operations. The scientists were able to make that precise determination using a recently discovered chemical signature that can differentiate between oil and gas emissions and those coming from vehicles and other sources.
“We had a very strong signature from the raw natural gas,” said Jessica Gilman the CIRES study lead author in an interview with the Boulder Daily Camera newspaper.
The town of Erie is located in Weld County, a 4,000 square mile county northeast of Boulder and east of Fort Collins. That county, which overlays a hot new oil and gas play in the Niobrara Formation, has nearly 20,000 oil and gas wells, though it had about 15,000 during the study period.
Recent intensive development of oil and gas that is creeping into urban and suburban areas has prompted widespread concern in some Weld County communities about health and social impacts, with residents complaining about ill effects ranging from nosebleeds and headaches to asthma attacks. The town has imposed a six-month moratorium on new drilling permits, and another community to the north, Longmont, has voted to exclude drilling within city limits, prompting a suit by the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission that regulates drilling.
Tom Kenworthy is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.