The Uintah Basin's tricky oil and gas ozone problem

Can officials greenlight booming development and clean up the air at the same time?


On a crisp fall day lined with cottonwoods yellow-bright as balls of flame, I take a gravel shortcut from Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon toward Vernal, an energy boomtown of some 10,000 souls. Though I’ve spent the day looking at natural gas wells going in along the fingers of the plateau that cradles Nine Mile’s storied rock art, I’m surprised by what I encounter shortly after hitting asphalt, popping up around each curve in time to Phil Collins crooning a Supremes cover on the radio: Pumpjacks. Everywhere.

You can't hurry love
No you'll just have to wait

Two tall as buildings nod up on the right.

She said love don't come easy
It's a game of give and take

Two more nod down the left. Then another two.

How long must I wait
How much more must I take

A prickling of several more on the mesa tops, and then

Before loneliness
Will cause my heart, heart to break?

the broad dome of dry-grass desert opens up to reveal a vista that is anything but lonely: Densely spaced oil wells and clustered tanks spread to the horizons. When I pull over and climb onto the shoulder, I can feel a vibration deep in my chest – hundreds of pumpjack engines rattling with flatulent backfires like impolite party guests.

If it were a cold, still day with snow carpeting the ground, there would likely be a lungful of nasty air to accompany this chorus, and a much hazier view. That's because wintertime inversions occasionally close over the Uintah Basin like a giant Tupperware lid, sealing in pollutants from its more than 10,000 active oil and gas wells, associated truck traffic, drilling rigs and waste disposal facilities, and help facilitate a chemical reaction that produces ozone levels that rival those found in urban Los Angeles. In Vernal last winter, monitors recorded ozone levels exceeding national standards on 22 days, and in neighboring Roosevelt, 29 days, with episodes ranging from three to 15 days in length. The gas can harm lungs, and exacerbate existing respiratory and cardiac ailments. And though the valley’s population is small enough that it’s difficult to definitively demonstrate local health impacts, levels are certainly high enough to produce them. Utah health officials are currently looking into whether the area has a higher-than-normal infant mortality rate, after a local midwife found an increase in deaths based on obituary records.

Uintah Basin ozone spikes
Ozone monitors in Ouray, Redwash, Vernal and Roosevelt show wintertime spikes above the federal health standard. Y axis shows ozone parts per billion; the federal standard is 75 ppb. X axis shows dates of readings, between 2009 and 2013. Courtesy Utah DEQ.

As part of a collaboration between the state, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Land Management and several academic institutions, researchers are zeroing in on the specific chemistry and sources of those emissions in hopes of decreasing them. One study published in Nature on October 1 traced local ozone formation back primarily to volatile organic compounds (or VOCs), some 97 percent of which are released by industry activity – a difference from ozone in urban areas, where nitrogen oxides play more of a role. Scientists using a mobile laboratory, meanwhile, recently published findings that individual well pads are likely responsible for the bulk of Uintah Basin emissions, particularly via holding tanks, as well as equipment that separates liquid fuels or water from natural gas.

State and federal officials are already working to tackle some of these sources; the Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 finalized new source performance standards (since updated twice) – to be fully implemented next year – that should cut VOC emissions from new wells by 95 percent. And last month, Utah enacted rules that apply to existing infrastructure as well. These require ongoing maintenance of pollution controls; replacing pneumatic controllers on holding tanks – which allow gases to vent directly into the atmosphere whenever pressure builds enough – with low- or no-bleed valves; putting autoigniters on flares so that they don’t, in the event of extinguishing, release unburned hydrocarbons into the mix; and bottom-filling instead of splash-filling tanker trucks, which will cut those emissions 50 to 60 percent.

Since much of the pollution likely flows from older equipment and practices, says Utah Department of Environmental Quality Deputy Division Director Brock LeBaron, those changes could produce marked improvements, even as new development marches onward. To help ensure compliance, the state has also doubled the number of inspectors working the basin from two to four, and although that still puts each site on an inspection cycle of two to three years, he argues, their presence and visibility should encourage producers to fall in line.

The Bureau of Land Management, meanwhile, increasingly demands pollution controls from companies proposing to develop on public land, says the agency’s Utah air quality specialist, Leonard Herr, such as pipelines to reduce truck traffic, centralized facilities to make emissions capture easier and relying on electricity instead of engines to power field infrastructure. The agency is also heading up a basin-wide air-quality modeling effort to guide future decisions about development. “It’s too early to make definitive statements” about results, says Herr. “More wells are being drilled, but ozone is not going up. That said, it’s not going down either.”

"We might be allowing construction of something so gargantuan that it’s impossible to keep emissions in check. Sealing all the possible leaks in the system might be physically and logistically impossible.”

Such efforts are steps in the right direction, says Jeremy Nichols of the environmental group WildEarth Guardians, which sued the EPA over its decision not to designate the Uintah Basin a nonattainment zone in hopes of ushering in a mandated and much stricter ozone reduction plan. But their success will depend in part on how the EPA and the Ute tribe decide to further regulate oil and gas development on neighboring Indian Country, which accounts for a large portion of emissions.

And “ultimately,” given the 30,000 or so new wells expected in the Uintah Basin, he adds, “it’s an issue of scale. The traditional thinking is that you can always slap on a control. But at the end of the day we might be allowing construction of something so gargantuan that it’s impossible to keep emissions in check in a way that really protects public health. Sealing all the possible leaks in the system might be physically and logistically impossible.”

Indeed, the BLM's most recent report from its modeling effort found that simply controlling VOC pollution from all condensate tanks and dehydrators -- both major sources -- will result in only small cuts to ozone levels from foreseeable oil and gas development by 2021, and still fail to meet federal health standards. And by the end of this year, the EPA is expected to float a proposal to make those standards significantly tighter.

“That’s going to make the hurdle tougher,” says LeBaron. “But we know which direction we need to go, and we’re going to keep plowing away.”

Some of the new state and BLM rules already go farther than the BLM has had a chance to model says Herr, but additional measures are likely to be necessary. Depending on what the cooperating agencies involved decide, that could mean adding controls to a broader array of equipment and strengthening and expanding inspection and maintenance programs -- which, he says, might be enough. And if not, seasonal restrictions, an emissions budget with a set cap on pollution or even reducing future development could come into play. But whatever the mechanism, “I have complete confidence that the Uintah Basin’s ozone problems are solvable. We have a great track record in this country. Compare 1950s air quality issues to now. Lead? A nonissue. Carbon monoxide? Solved pretty much everywhere.” And none of those efforts crippled local economies, he points out.

But don’t hold your breath that the resolution of local pollution will be speedy (or, actually, maybe you should … benzene, one of the VOCs involved, is a potent carcinogen at high levels). As the Supremes so sagely noted about love, it’s pretty difficult to hurry regulatory mechanisms that involve multiple jurisdictions and an economic powerhouse of an industry. “Let’s get the ozone down now and not wait through the years and years that nonattainment planning takes,” says LeBaron. “I’ll be dead before that process wraps up. Seriously.”

Sarah Gilman is a High Country News contributing editor.

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