Cracking the ozone code in Utah's gas fields

  • Researchers with the Uintah Basin Winter Ozone Study launch a blimp-shaped balloon in early 2011 to take air quality samples at various altitudes.

    Courtesy Howard Shorthill, Utah State University
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration senior research associate Jon Kofler shows air quality readings from inside the ozone study’s testing van at Utah State University Uintah Basin in Vernal in February 2012.

    Geoff Liesik, Deseret News

Updated 9/4/2012

On a bright February morning, a curiously adorned cargo van crept down a dirt road in northeastern Utah's Uintah Basin. A steel pole with a jumble of funnels strapped to its tip rose from the roof's rear, and the vehicle moved so slowly that its speed didn't even register -- a good thing, considering that its occupants were less focused on the road than they were on their computer screen's undulating lines.

"We're on the edge of it now," said driver Peter Edwards, an air chemist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "The blue line is the methane -- you'll see that jump right up. And we'll see the nitrogen oxide go up." As we entered a natural-gas well's plume, the funnels inhaled air, and instruments inside the van analyzed it. A decidedly low-tech piece of equipment -- a piece of string tied to the antenna -- stood rigid in the wind, allowing the researchers to eyeball which pieces of well-pad equipment they were downwind of when emissions spiked.

In recent years, frenzied drilling has brought many changes to this sparsely populated patch of the Colorado Plateau. Vernal, population around 9,000, has gained numerous hotels, a handful of Main Street retail stores, a Lowe's and several chain restaurants. Meanwhile, Uintah County's coffers have grown pleasantly plump with mineral royalties.

The boom has also brought some unexpected byproducts: concentrations of ground-level ozone that, on the worst days, rival those of the most polluted cities, where ozone and other airborne wastes combine to create smog. Ozone can cause acute respiratory ailments and aggravate asthma. At times, its concentrations here are almost double what the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe. (How the ozone has affected local health, though, has not been studied.)

It's a puzzling phenomenon that a team of NOAA scientists, including Edwards, spent this year trying to untangle. Unlike urban areas, where ozone events are a hallmark of summer, levels spike here in winter. So far, that is known to occur in only one other place in the world -- Wyoming's Upper Green River Basin, home to the Jonah and Pinedale Anticline gas fields.

Effective strategies for stifling ozone have been slow to take shape, in large part because how it forms in winter is still only partially understood. Even basic data -- such as the source-by-source emissions inventory the van was collecting -- have been lacking. Many years into a region-wide drilling boom, this points to an uneasy reality: Energy development has significantly outpaced our grasp of its effects on the environment and public health.

"It's important to understand the impacts of our energy economy," says Jim Roberts, a NOAA scientist who headed up the Utah ozone research last winter. "We may need to make choices around that" -- such as how rapidly we punch new wells, and how tightly drillers are required to control certain emissions. It's an issue of national importance, he says. "Why don't you see (wintertime ozone) in eastern Colorado? Why not western Pennsylvania or upstate New York?"

In 2005, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality began monitoring in the Upper Green River Basin in winter to get a handle on air quality before major oil and gas development occurred. Drilling had revved up the year before, and that first winter, ozone concentrations were nearly 25 percent above what's allowed under federal law.

The data shocked even the most well-versed ozone scientists. It's surprising enough to see this happening so far from the congested highways at the root of urban ozone and smog. But the timing of the episodes, in winter, was even more baffling, because the humidity and intense solar radiation thought necessary to start the chemical reaction that turns certain pollutants into ozone were missing.

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