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Utah ozone study finds energy industry is chief source of emissions

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Utah ozone study finds energy industry is chief source of emissions


A multi-agency study released Tuesday finds that oil and gas operationsin the Uintah Basin were responsible last winter for releasing into the airthe great majority of precursor chemicals that combine to form ozone, apollutant that has vexed the basin over the past several winters.

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An emissions inventory, conducted as part of the 285-page study thatmeasured ozone levels in the basin during the winter of 2011-12, found thatoil and gas operations were responsible for 98-99% of the volatile organiccompounds and 57-61% of the nitrogen oxides emitted from all sources studied.Ozone is principally formed as the result of the VOCs and NOx reactingtogether in sunlight.

The study was conducted by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality,in association with the US Environmental Protection Agency, US Bureau of LandManagement, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Utah StateUniversity, the University of California, the University of Colorado atBoulder, Western Energy Alliance and other entities.

Study organizers gathered in Vernal, Utah, Tuesday to announce the launchof the second phase of the study, which will continue to monitor ozoneconcentrations in the basin through the current year.

Brock LeBaron, a spokesman for Utah DEQ, cautioned that it is too earlyto determine if the results of the study indicate the need for increasedregulation of the oil and gas industry in the basin.

The existence of precursor chemicals in the atmosphere "doesn'tnecessarily mean that those precursors are going to lineally form ozone," hesaid. "You have to look at other sources of VOCs and NOx as well."

The results of the emissions inventory "gives us a basic understanding,"of the types of VOCs oil and gas operators are releasing into the atmosphere,but "it doesn't tell us how important they are," in leading to the formationof ozone, LeBaron said.

"Right now we're not passing any new rules or regulations. We're notsaying you have to control these VOCs from this piece of equipment," he said.

Instead the DEQ is urging operators to use the best available technologyto control the release of both VOCs and NOx.

In fact, the winter of 2011-12 was a period of low ozone formation inthe basin, compared with the previous two winters, LeBaron said. Last winterwas very warm, and the region did not have any snow cover or temperatureinversions, conditions necessary for the formation on wintertime ozone.

However, the lack of ozone may have aided the scientists in otheraspects of their investigation, he said. "It allowed the researchers toidentify what types of emissions are in the basin. That's easier to do whenyou have a clean atmosphere," he said.

Kathleen Sgamma, WEA's vice president of government and public affairs,said the study findings that the oil and gas industry was responsible for theproduction of the majority of VOCs and NOx in the basin was not surprising.

"In the Uintah Basin, pretty much the only activity is the oil and gasindustry," she said Tuesday. "We knew all along that oil and gas was themajor source of emissions in the basin."

However, she added that more work needs to be done to develop theinventories for other potential emissions sources, such as motor vehicletraffic, in the basin.

Western Energy Alliance provided $2.125 million toward the Uintah Basinozone studies, through contributions from Anadarko Petroleum, BerryPetroleum, Bill Barrett Corp., EOG Resources, Gasco Energy, NewfieldExploration, QEP Resources, and XTO Energy.

--Jim Magill, by Katharine Fraser,