Ah, fresh desert air, scented with sage, heady with .... ozone?? This winter, rural parts of Utah and Wyoming with lots of energy development have sometimes had higher levels of unhealthy ozone than big metropolitan areas like L.A.and Salt Lake City.
Back in 2008, the Bureau of Land Management released a plan to manage 1.8 million acres of northeastern Utah primarily as a natural gas field. At the time, the Environmental Protection Agency sharply criticized it for failing to account for the ozone emitted by 2,300 recently-drilled wells, and for not considering the air-quality impacts of another 6,300 planned wells. Rocky Mountain EPA official Larry Svoboda told HCN, "We think that's a disaster waiting to happen."
It looks like Svoboda’s concerns were justified: Fourteen violations of federal ozone standards were recorded during the first six weeks of 2011 in the Uintah Basin, an area covered by the BLM plan mentioned above and pockmarked by more than 10,000 wells. In seven of those incidents, the ozone level was nearly 30 percent higher than the federal threshold – the level at which ozone can set off asthma attacks and worsen respiratory problems like bronchitis.
Researchers are studying the problem, which is exacerbated by winter weather patterns; if high levels persist, the feds may tighten regulations on further natural gas development. That prospect is causing great consternation among energy companies, reports the Salt Lake Tribune:
The industry has asked state lawmakers for help in fending off federal regulation, possibly by providing the Utah Division of Air Quality with more funding to deal with the Uinta Basin and prodding the BLM to issue drilling permits faster.
But even before the EPA takes action — and it appears to be years away from doing so — lawmakers are lamenting its industry-crushing interference.
Sen. Margaret Dayton, R-Orem, says the agency has an “absolute commitment to destroy the drilling efforts we have out here.”
Meanwhile, the Wyoming gas patch is experiencing its own problems with excessive ozone pollution. On Monday, state regulators issued an ozone advisory for western Wyoming, the first in more than two years. Children, the elderly, and people with respiratory problems are advised to "limit strenuous or extended outdoor activities, especially in the afternoon and evening."
Jodi Peterson is HCN's managing editor.