AIR POLLUTION: Dirty winter air in eastern Utah linked to oil and gas production by Amanda Peterka, October 1, 2014, E&E News
Oil and gas production is causing excessive wintertime ozone pollution in eastern Utah’s Uinta Basin, according to a study led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and released today.
The smog-forming pollutant is forming in petroleum-producing areas despite the fact that two main ingredients needed to convert emissions to ozone — sunlight and humidity — are at low levels in winter. Pollution levels at times exceeded the federal standard for ozone of 75 parts per billion.
The high levels were “clearly related” to oil and gas emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the study says. Oil and gas activities are responsible for 62 percent of the NOx emissions and 97 percent of the VOC emissions in the two counties that are part of the Uinta Basin, according to U.S. EPA.
There are more than 10,000 wells in the basin.
“If you’re driving through this area, there will be large areas, a couple square miles, where there is a wellhead about every quarter-mile. There will be tanks and pumps and pipes running over the ground,” said Jim Roberts, a research chemist at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory and a co-author of the study. “It’s fairly obvious that that’s what’s going on.”
The results were published in the journal Nature.
Ozone typically forms in the summer, when intense sunlight and humidity prompt chemical reactions between airborne NOx and VOCs. It’s far less common in the winter, which makes the results of the Utah study surprising, according to lead author Peter Edwards, previously a scientist with NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and now with the University of York in England.
In Utah, the high ozone levels were observed through a series of field measurements known as the Uintah Basin Winter Ozone Studies that took place during January and February of 2012, 2013 and 2014. High ozone levels recorded the preceding two years in the basin, as well as previous research linking high winter ozone levels in Wyoming to oil and gas activity, prompted the study.
The Uinta Basin studies showed that ozone production was moderate during the winter of 2011-2012; no ozone levels were recorded above 51 ppb. That winter was warm with no snow cover.
But many “strong O3 events” occurred during the colder and snow-covered winter of 2012-2013. That winter had a threefold greater daily average of ozone than during the previous year. There was a six-day period from Jan. 31 to Feb. 5 when the daily maximum eight-hour average of ozone increased from 67 to 107 ppb — the longest sustained buildup of ozone observed.
Roberts said that the high levels were at first a “mystery” but that by using modeling, the NOAA researchers found that VOCs released by oil and gas activities built up to high enough levels to trigger reactions that resulted in ozone pollution.
“It’s the same starting ingredients, nitrogen oxides and VOCs,” that form ozone in the summer, “but it’s a different spark in Utah in winter,” co-author Steven Brown, a scientist with NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., said in a statement.
Topography also contributed by keeping the air stable enough to allow the VOCs to build up in the basin that’s east of the Wasatch Mountains and south of the Uinta Mountains.
Prompted by the observation that no high-ozone events occurred during the 2012 study when there was no snow cover, the researchers also looked into the role of snow in ozone formation. They found that snow stimulates reactions of precursor pollutants into ozone because it increases reflection of solar energy and plays a role trapping air in the basin. When snow was added to a model of the 2012 winter, ozone levels jumped.
“You get these really shallow layers of pollution that sit there, so it doesn’t allow mixing to take place,” Roberts said. “It keeps everything in a stable polluted layer that can last over a week.”
Implications for other areas
Denver, which is also located in a basin and has a stable atmosphere during the winter, does not experience the same high ozone levels because the ratio of NOx and VOCs released by industry there is different from in oil and gas regions, Roberts said. Denver experiences more NOx pollution than VOC pollution in the winter, so it doesn’t get the buildup in VOCs that triggers ozone formation.
It’s unclear whether oil and gas activity is having a similar effect in other regions of the country, but the study could have implications for other areas of the world with shale gas resources, such as in the United Kingdom and China, in midlatitudes, the authors say.
The study could also have implications for cities and towns near oil and gas production.
“Urban areas in close proximity to oil- and gas-producing regions may tend towards more efficient O3 production during the winter season, with as yet unrecognized consequences,” the study says.
The authors suggested that the results could help shape policy in oil and gas regions.
“These studies in Utah have caused us to think about air pollution chemistry a little differently,” co-author Joost de Gouw, a researcher with CIRES working at NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory, said in a statement. “Our findings could help state and local air quality managers who are faced with ozone episodes to design policies, and industry representatives to meet air quality standards in the regions where they operate.”
The study was supported by the Western Energy Alliance, NOAA’s Atmospheric Chemistry, Carbon Cycle and Climate program, and the National Science Foundation.
Roberts said that the team is planning follow-up research this spring to better characterize the emissions sources not only in the Uinta Basin but in oil and gas regions stretching from North Dakota to Texas. [Emphasis added]
Fracking in wintry areas linked to high ozone pollution, Study targets mountain basins with oil and gas developments and cold weather by Margaret Munro, Postmedia News, with files from Sheila Pratt, Edmonton Journal, October 1, 2014
Emissions wafting out of oil and gas operations can trigger “extreme” ozone pollution events that rival those seen in congested cities such as Los Angeles, according to an international study.
Extraordinary levels of ozone, which can exacerbate asthma and other respiratory problems, have been seen in rural areas of Utah and Wyoming where oil extraction and fracking have taken off.
Scientists say the same phenomena may be occurring near oil and fracking operations in Canada — especially in mountainous regions where winter weather can trap and concentrate the emissions emitted by wells and extraction processes.
“I would expect any mountain basin that has oil and gas development in it and winter weather conditions to be subject to the same phenomenon,” Steven Brown, an atmospheric scientist at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told Postmedia News.
Brown and his colleagues reported Wednesday in the journal Nature that emissions from oil and gas operations can trigger “extreme winter ozone pollution events” that exceed national air quality standards.
“It’s shocking,” co-author Cora Young of Memorial University in Newfoundland said. She initially didn’t believe the results she helped collect in a mountain basin in Utah where oil and gas wells are now operating across the landscape.
“I was like: ‘There must be a mistake, there must be a problem with the monitors,’” she said. “But it’s real.”
Jason Maloney, a spokesman for Alberta Environment, said the study results have little application in Alberta because the geography and climate in Utah are very different from the oilsands area in the northeast. There is not enough hours of sunlight in northern Alberta in the winter to produce the intense “ozone events” that the study recorded in Utah, he added. “We will look at the study to see if there is anything useful we can use,” Maloney said. [Some data altering and report editing perhaps?]
Up until now, winter ozone events have not been reported in Canada, but the scientists say that could be because of a lack of monitoring.
“It’s this combination of emissions and cold weather and snow that is causing this,” Young said. “And we certainly get snow in Canada, and we have the same emissions, so there is no reason to think it wouldn’t happen.”
Brown said “there is a lot of potential for this sort of thing to be going without being noticed.”
Atmospheric scientist Shoa-Meng Li at Environment Canada was involved with the study but could not be reached for comment. [Or did anti-science Mr. Harper forbid a response?] Environment Canada’s media office, which insists media requests be routed through its Ottawa operation, did not respond to questions about ozone monitoring near the expanding oil and gas operations in Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.
Maloney said the province has increased monitoring for air pollution in the past year, adding 20 stations in the northeast. But it is unclear if ozone is tested for specifically.
In the U.S., concern over air quality near oil and gas fields has been mounting since a high school science project in Wyoming turned up high winter ozone levels a few years ago.
The new study confirms the students were on to a very real but “unpredicted” atmospheric phenomenon, Brown said.
For the Nature study, the scientists monitored the atmosphere in a mountain basin in northeastern Utah from 2012 to 2014 and found that nitrogen oxides and particularly high levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can get trapped in the basin by winter weather inversions. And sunlight reflecting off snow accelerates the ozone-forming reaction during “cold, snowy stagnant periods.”
In several instances wintertime ozone in the Utah study area spiked well beyond the level deemed safe by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In 2013 they exceeded national air quality standards on 49 days — almost twice as often as they were exceeded in Riverside, California, a part of the Los Angeles area notorious for poor air quality.
Ozone pollution can trigger chest pain, coughing and throat irritation, and worsen bronchitis, emphysema and asthma.
“When you have air quality than resembles Houston or Los Angeles in a rural area that’s a serious problem,” Young said.
Nitric oxides and VOCs have been known to create summer ozone events in congested cities, but the scientists found that a different chemical process involving much higher levels of VOCs drives the winter ozone formation near the oil and gas fields.
“It’s really a combination of winter meteorology in mountain basins and this very unusual atmospheric chemistry,” Brown said. “Both are required for these events to occur.” [Emphasis added]