Industry blames weather for ozone

February 21, 2013

oil and gas drilling

Uintah Basin - Uth

Uintah Basin – Utah

Remember the NOAA study I told you about in January? The one that found copious amounts of methane in the Uintah Basin gasfields produce dangerous ozone levels.

A press conference was held in Vernal, Utah on February 19, where the results of the study were revealed. The multi-agency, industry-sponsored study was funded by Western Energy Alliance, EPA, NOAA, Utah State University’s Energy Dynamics Laboratory, Uintah and Duchesne counties, and the Ute tribe. Results of the 2011-2012 Winter Ozone Study showed that most of the air pollution in the rural Uintah Basin is the result of oil and gas drilling and the Bonanza Power Plant.

Oil and gas production releases more than 98% of the VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and the Bonanza Power Plant accounts for up to 61% of NOX (nitrogen oxides). Scientists believe those emissions are responsible for producing dangerous levels of ozone, commonly known as smog, which is created by chemical reactions in sunlight from volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxides. The EPA says ozone is unhealthy for people and the environment. Doctors say it can cause respiratory and heart problems.

As the study got under way last winter (2011-12) the less-than-normal snowpack didn’t create much ozone for scientists to measure. However it did provide them with a baseline for a clean atmosphere. The snowpack is back this winter and the study is ongoing. Scientific SWAT teams from the University of Utah have gone out to the Basin again to watch the chemistry of pollution in action.

Early results show that the snowpack seems to amplify the sun’s energy, which converts more industrial emissions into ozone, said Seth Lyman, an air quality specialist for Utah State University who helped edit the study.

The basin has seen more than a dozen episodes of high ozone so far this year, the report says. Ozone levels have reached about 130 parts per billion, almost double EPA’s standard of 75 ppb, and have lasted for weeks at a time said Brock LeBaron, deputy director of the Utah Division of Air Quality and leader of the study team. Federal regulators have put Utah Governor Gary Herbert on notice that Uintah and Duchesne counties are close to being declared out of compliance with federal Clean Air Act limits on ozone.

Close? More like off the charts! You mean to tell me that’s not enough VOCs to set federal regulators’ hair on fire?

The preliminary 281-page report contains no recommendations for emissions controls. Although the study team led by University of Utah scientists did say that VOC controls would effectively reduce ozone production and would have other health benefits, considering that cancer-causing substances like methane, benzene, and toluene pose serious health risks. Ozone pollution has the biggest impact on the very young, the very old and people with heart and lung problems. It causes what’s been described as “sunburn on the lungs” which can harm normally healthy people, too.

Scientists need to continue studies to determine which emissions controls could be most effective in curbing ozone, said LeBaron, adding, “We’ve got a good, cooperative framework for looking at this problem. We will work with producers to come up with a list of things they may be able to do to respond to episodic conditions. That’s in process – things like only drill during certain times of the year. We can describe the parameters, present that this is what you are up against and ask what they are going to do to respond to that.”

Western Energy Alliance is a Denver-based trade group for oil and gas producers and contributed a whopping $2.2 million for the study. The group’s Government Affairs Director Kathleen Sgamma said industry officials are already trying to curb pollutants, “These two studies will significantly advance the scientific understanding of winter ozone formation, and will inform regulators and the industry on how to effectively reduce emissions.”

Uintah County Commissioner Michael McKee warned that premature arbitrary actions should be avoided: “Industry faces several challenges. When a producer schedules a drilling rig, it wants to keep it working. With their resource management plans, they’re already precluded from drilling during certain times of year. They may already be dealing with tight windows. Also, with natural gas prices as low as they’ve been, industry might say it’s no longer worth drilling here.”

McKee said drillers are trying to correct the problem to avoid mandates from the EPA:  “From a local government perspective, this matters to our community. The oil and gas industry is 60% of our economy and 50% of our jobs. Air quality and contributing factors matter to us too. There are a lot of references in the study to the need for more information. We’ve learned a lot, but need to learn much more.”

That’s right. For the sake of the economy, let’s kick this stinky can of ozone into obscurity and study the issue some more until scientists achieve results which are more favorable to the oil & gas industry.

So, in the face of overwhelming and irrefutable evidence that air pollution is caused by oil & gas production, how will the industry respond? They can’t very well bury the study like they did the Battlement Mesa HIA. The cat’s already out of the bag. They can’t exactly discredit the scientists. There’s a whole team of them and the industry paid them a lot of money.

They will have to spin this. They already are, and it’s a doozy. They’re blaming the weather. I know. Right? That’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever heard. I’m not a scientist. I’m not even very smart but I understand that ozone is caused by the presence of nitrogen oxides (NOX) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the air because I just told you that.

The very next day after the press conference, on Wednesday (2/20), the Independent Petroleum Association of America’s (IPAA) propaganda website Energy In Depth (EID) came out with an “article” humorously titled Utah Air Quality Has a Lot to Do with the Weather. Stop a minute. The title just makes me giggle.

Okay. There. So. In it, Mountain States Field Director Courtney cherry-picked bits and bytes from the 281-page study that pointed to the impact of snow pack, sunlight, and air inversions and posited that oil & gas emissions might be bad maybe but the only reason those emissions turn into dangerous ozone anyway is cuz of stuff like snow, sun, wind – you know – the weather.

Then she goes on to whine about the fact that four – count em – four newspaper headlines blamed oil & gas production for the high emissions in the basin BECAUSE THAT’S WHAT THE STUDY SHOWED!

But she had high praise for the Mormon Church faith and family newspaper’s reporting:  “Only the Deseret News in Salt Lake City saw fit to explore and explain what the researchers actually concluded, running a story under the header:  ‘Uintah Basin ozone study points to weather as driving factor.’

Here’s what’s even funnier. She didn’t read it. There’s nothing in the article that supports the headline. The title could just as well have been “Uintah Basin ozone study points to spacemen as a driving factor.”

Mountain States Field Director Courtney concludes with this cute little quip:  “It seems most news outlets, like ozone formation in the Basin, are driven heavily by prevailing winds.”

In other words, the industry is just gonna blow off this study.

I think they’re on the right track with the whole blame-it-on-the-weather thing. I mean, who doesn’t blame the weather? Am I right? To help them along their PR campaign I thought up a few slogans —

Natural gas – we don’t care about the ozone so you don’t have to

Natural gas – we go to great lengths to lower the snowpack and ensure clean air

Natural gas – less sunlight and snowpack make for healthier air

Natural gas – and wind helps, too …

Who needs air when you have gas?

Too bad for the industry there’s not more cattle grazing in the Uintah Basin. They could’ve blamed it all on cow farts.

For more information:

The study:  Uintah Basin: Air Quality and Energy Development
Defining the Problem: Uintah Basin 2012 Winter Ozone Study

Study finds oil and gas causing pollution problem in eastern Utah
$5M Uinta Basin study IDs causes of winter pollution, but leaders aren’t quite ready to act

Cracking the ozone code
On the ground in the basin with the researchers

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