By Tom Kenworthy
Extensive oil and gas drilling in the Uinta Basin of northeastern Utah produces the great majority of the chemical air pollution that produces winter ozone in that rural region, a new interagency study has concluded.
“An emissions inventory developed for the study indicates that oil and gas operations were responsible for 98 to 99 percent of” volatile organic compounds “and 57 to 61 percent of” nitrogen oxides in the basin, the study concluded. Those substances combine in the presence of sunshine to produce ozone, which a recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency links to heart and lung diseases and mortality.
The Utah study, conducted by Utah state and federal agencies and three universities, collected data on pollutants last winter. The study said that ozone formation occurs in the region in about half of winter seasons, with severe ozone occurring about one year in four. It said that transport of ozone-producing chemicals from outside the Uinta Basin “is not likely to represent a major contribution to peak ozone events.”
At the press conference announcing the study results, the deputy director of Utah’s Air Quality Administration said ozone levels this year have at times exceeded 130 parts per billion in the basin, far above the 75 parts per billion level considered a health hazard by EPA.
The Utah study follows a recent investigation into ozone in Colorado which found that more than half of the ozone producing chemicals came from oil and gas operations in a community in Weld County, a region that has nearly 20,000 operating oil and gas wells.
Ozone has been a frequent problem during summer months in urban areas of the United States. Wintertime ozone in heavily developed oil and gas regions of the West, including northeastern Utah and western Wyoming, is a relatively new phenomenon fueled in part by snow cover that reflects sunlight and temperature inversions.
The Utah study said that new rules from the EPA requiring so-called “green completions” of oil and gas wells will reduce emissions of VOC’s. A study sponsored by the oil and gas industry criticized that effort, contending it would sharply reduce production.
The Utah study also recommended additional studies to develop ways of reducing ozone in the Uinta Basin. But Brock LeBaron, the deputy head of the state air quality administration, said the state plans no new regulations on the oil and gas industry, favoring instead voluntary steps by energy developers.
“Right now we’re not passing any new rules or regulations,” LeBaron said, according to a report in E&E’s Energy Wire. “We’re not saying you have to control these VOCs from this piece of equipment.”
Tom Kenworthy is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.