‘Big-city’ ozone goes rural
Put together the wide-open spaces, low population and light traffic of a place like Rio Blanco County, and it wouldn’t seem like a recipe for an ozone pollution problem.
But combine ingredients such as snow cover, air-trapping temperature inversions and pollutants from sources including oil and gas development, and the western part of the county including Rangely has been the site this winter of its first-ever high-ozone alert by state health officials.
“I wish it wasn’t my county,” said county Commissioner Ken Parsons. “I live on the western end here, and I very much value having a good environment and clean air to breathe.”
The discovery of unhealthy air in such a seemingly unlikely area is being watched closely by a variety of interests, from public health officials to energy companies to conservation groups such as WildEarth Guardians.
“The fact that we are having ozone alerts in Rangely, that’s just absurd. Ozone’s a big-city problem. It shouldn’t be a problem in Rio Blanco County,” said Jeremy Nichols, climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians.
The arrival of ozone problems there raises further questions about the degree to which it also could surface in other rural or semi-rural areas sharing the common denominator of oil and gas development, such as heavily drilled Garfield County.
“We’re not in a violative condition. We’re watching very closely,” said Jim Rada, Garfield County’s environmental health manager.
While high ozone levels in rural areas come as something of a surprise to science, especially because they are occurring in the winter, there is increasing precedence for the problem where drilling occurs in the West.
High readings have beset the western Wyoming gas development region around Pinedale. The same goes for northeastern Utah’s Uinta Basin; in fact, the Environmental Protection Agency thinks the Rangely area’s problems may be related to that basin’s because it basically sits on the basin’s eastern end, said Carl Daly, an air-quality specialist for the agency in Denver.
Early last year, ozone in the basin reached levels considerably above the EPA’s standards. The agency has raised ozone as an issue of concern when the Bureau of Land Management has considered new gas development there. But Daly said the agency can’t say with certainty whether energy development is causing the problem, or possibly something such as pollution from the Salt Lake City area. Utah State University is currently studying possible causes.
The factors required to form ozone include volatile organic compounds, nitrogen oxide and sunlight to cause a photochemical reaction. The resulting colorless, odorless pollutant can cause respiratory problems in active children and adults, and in people with ailments such as asthma.
Traditionally, ozone is a summertime, metropolitan problem when a hot sun and urban pollution mix. So, experts are working to explain the recently identified wintertime, rural problem.
“Scientists are still trying to get a handle on this one because it’s such a new manifestation of ozone,” said Andrea Holland, who has been monitoring ozone for the White River National Forest, based in Glenwood Springs.
What appears to be happening is the required pollutants are in place, the weaker winter sun still plays a reactive role because its effect is amplified when it reflects off snow, and the temperature inversions tend to trap everything in place.
“It’s like a soup, and there’s no wind pushing it out,” Holland said.
For whatever reason, Garfield County so far has managed to avoid the problems that have hit some other areas with heavy natural gas development. Rada said wintertime ozone levels in the county have remained fairly low. He speculated that the county may benefit from light breezes that tend to flush through the valleys.
That said, the county knows it has the right types of pollutant sources to develop ozone, Rada said. These include an energy industry that contributes heavily to volatile organic compounds in the atmosphere, and other sources such as traffic, a significant amount of which also is related to gas development.
Industry steps up
Rada said tougher emissions rules that have been imposed by state oil-and-gas and air-quality regulators have helped control volatile-organic-compound emissions by energy developers, as have voluntary moves by many of those companies to install control devices even before some of them were required.
EnCana Oil & Gas (USA) develops natural gas in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin and in the Pinedale area in Wyoming, among other areas.
“We have greatly reduced our emissions (around Pinedale) using some of these same strategies we’re using in the Piceance,” EnCana spokesman Doug Hock said.
The strategies can include installing volatile-organic-compound combustors on condensate tanks, using vapor-recovery units that let EnCana keep and sell products that otherwise would be going into the air, inspecting valves and pipes with ultraviolet cameras to find and fix leaks, and replacing high-bleed pneumatic valves with low-bleed ones.
Hock said ozone is complex and can come from multiple sources, and in places such as Pinedale there’s no long-term ozone data to compare against, which makes it harder to determine the role the recent gas boom there is playing.
Still, “there’s no question that the industry does have an impact in terms of emissions. That’s why, regardless of where we operate, we’re always looking for ways to reduce that,” Hock said.
Peter Brixius, the town administrator of Rangely, said that with energy development being a major part of the region’s economy, he thinks people there would be pretty concerned about any ozone requirements that would affect people’s livelihoods.
“Rangely exists because of oil, gas and coal,” he said.
Pointing to the nearby problems in Utah, he added, “It could be that ozone levels are not a creation of the activity in Rio Blanco County.”
He added, “It’s awfully early to determine if there’s a cause and effect right now. I think we need to see more monitoring before any conclusions would be drawn.”
Nichols, with WildEarth Guardians, said the rest of Coloradans shouldn’t be denied the same stricter oil and gas emission rules in place in Weld County to protect the Front Range, and it’s becoming apparent that ozone should be dealt with as a regional rather than local issue.
“We’re dealing with a kind of big pool of pollution, so I think we have to look at the whole pool,” he said.
Parsons, the Rio Blanco commissioner, said restrictions like those in Weld County might need to be considered in the Piceance Basin, as well as in Utah’s Uinta Basin, which he said saw far more wells drilled during the recent gas development boom than did the Rio Blanco portion of the Piceance.
“Certainly all the new (oil and gas) development is doing nothing but exacerbating the problem, and I think it’s something that we’re going to have to deal with. It certainly seems like the connection is there to me,” Parsons said.