First Uinta basin ozone formation study released

A collaboration involving Utah’s Division of Air Quality, county governments in eastern Utah, researchers from Utah State University, and the Western Energy Alliance has produced the first study of wintertime ozone formation conditions and characteristics in the Uinta basin.

“This report represents the first phase of a multiyear study of how ozone forms in the Uinta basin,” said Brock LeBaron, UDAQ deputy director, as the report was released at the Bingham Research Center on USU’s campus in Vernal. “We know that under the right meteorological conditions, ozone can form here during the winter. The governor wanted to form a partnership to understand how this happens, and how to deal with it.”

Seth Lyman, the Bingham Research Center’s executive director, said the report was significant because it is one of the first to examine wintertime ozone formation conditions and developed several significant findings. While summertime ozone formation in urban areas has been extensively examined, the same can’t be said for rural areas’ wintertime ozone formation, he indicated.

“Snow cover is a significant formation factor,” the report said. “First, since it reflects sunlight, it limits daytime heating of the earth’s surface, keeping air cool and promoting temperature inversions. Second, the total amount of solar radiation passing through the atmosphere and available to drive chemical reactions responsible for ozone formation is nearly doubled as the snow cover reflects the incoming sunlight.”

Snow cover may also promote heterogeneous chemical reactions that enhance ozone formation, it added.

Primarily local

Analysis of historical weather data indicates that ozone formation conditions can occur on at least some days during half of each winter season in the Uinta basin, the report stated. Most of these are from sources within the basin and not transported from elsewhere, it said.

Researchers found, however, that Uinta basin oil and gas operations were responsible for 98-99% of the volatile organic compounds and 57-61% of the nitrogen oxides that were measured. “It’s important to remember, however, that there aren’t a lot of people here and not much other industry,” LeBaron said. “Other emission sources weren’t considered because it was believed their releases would be small.”

“From a local government perspective, this matters to our community,” Uintah County Commissioner Mike McKee said. “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.”

“Industry has been proactively involved in these issues for several years,” said Kathleen Sgamma, vice-president of government and public affairs at the Western Energy Alliance in Denver. “Our member companies funded monitors in the basin which determined there were ozone formation conditions for the first time.”

The winter of 2012-13 was significantly warmer and dryer than normal, she continued, “but it provided us with great baseline data. There are still more studies to be done. We look forward to improving inventories and developing chemical models to determine the best way to reduce ozone formation and able to continue development into the future while making sure air quality is improved in the basin.”

Information limited

“The scientists were uncomfortable about making regulatory recommendations,” Lyman said. “We need to be very careful about NOx regulatory proposals. There also is new tribal minor source permitting programming beginning in 2014, where the only one that has existed so far was in the state.”

Lyman said, “We talked about possible response measures. Especially now, when we’re in a proactive, voluntary mode, there’s been a lot of discussion with producers about things they could do, such as only picking up water or drilling during certain times of the year. The producers know their business best. I’m sure there are discretionary steps that could be taken.”

McKee warned that premature arbitrary actions should be avoided. “Industry faces several challenges,” he said. “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.”

Sgamma also cautioned about adopting measures taken elsewhere without determining they would be suitable locally. “It’s important to understand that conditions here in the Uinta Basin are different than in the Green River basin farther north,” she said. “For one thing, ozone formation episodes can last longer here. If companies are asked to suspend operations, residents who work for them can be put out of work for several weeks.”

Contact Nick Snow at

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