How 11,000 Oil and Gas Wells Gave Utah Community More Ozone Pollution Than Los Angeles

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher Bryan Johnson (left) and University of Colorado Boulder researcher Detlev Helmig set up a tethered balloon to collect air samples above Utah’s Uintah Basin. Photo credit: Chelsea Thompson, via Chemical & Engineering News

Clearly, there’s no comparing the sparse population of Utah’s Uintah Basin and that of the mega-metropolis within the Los Angeles basin. So, how could both places possibly have similar volatile organic compounds (VOCs) levels?

Despite an area population of barely 30,000, Uintah County is home to a combined 11,200 oil- and gas-producing wells. Over time, their presence led to researchers’ discovery that the area exceeded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) eight-hour National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS) level for ozone pollutants for 39 days last winter, placing it above the Los Angeles Basin’s typical summertime levels.

Those results were reported in Highly Elevated Atmospheric Levels of Volatile Organic Compounds in the Uintah Basin, Utah, a paper by a group of University of Colorado Boulder researchers like Detlev Helmig and Chelsea Thompson of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. The paper made its way to this month’s Environmental Science & Technology journal, published by the American Chemical Society (ACS).

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher Bryan Johnson (left) and University of Colorado Boulder researcher Detlev Helmig set up a tethered balloon to collect air samples above Utah’s Uintah Basin. Photo credit: Chelsea Thompson, via Chemical & Engineering News

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher Bryan Johnson (left) and University of Colorado Boulder researcher Detlev Helmig set up a tethered balloon to collect air samples above Utah’s Uintah Basin. Photo credit: Chelsea Thompson, via Chemical & Engineering News

“Levels above this threshold are considered to be harmful to human health, and high levels of ozone are known to cause respiratory distress and be responsible for an estimated 5,000 premature deaths in the U.S. per year,” the report reads. “Because of the photochemical nature of ozone production, tropospheric ozone pollution has traditionally been considered an urban, summertime phenomenon.”

That’s clearly no longer the case. The group wrote that its 2013 observations from the Uintah Basin oil and gas development area are, “to the best of our knowledge, among the highest-ever reported mole fractions of alkane non-methane hydrocarbon in ambient air. Mole fractions for the aromatic compounds reach or exceed those reported from the most heavily polluted inner cities.”

There are about 25,000 more wells under proposal, according to the study.

Compounds like benzene, a carcinogen, that are associated with oil and gas wells are precursors of ozone and can cause respiratory problems, according to the report. The researchers say the Uintah Basin is simlar to the basin of Wyoming and together they are two of the highest producing oil and gas fields in the U.S.

Researchers found that Uintah Basin benzene levels often exceeded 1.4 parts per billion, which is a benchmark for chronic exposure, Lisa M. McKenzie, a public health researcher at the University of Colorado, Denver, told the ASC’s Chemical & Engineering News.  But since benzene is considered a carcinogen, the EPA does not define a safe threshold for its presence.

“This is quite amazing,” says Bernhard Rappenglück, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Houston.

According to the University of Colorado Boulder, the researchers placed instruments attached to a tower and tethered balloons at the edge of a gas field to measure volatile organic VOCs in the air, from the surface to a height of 500 feet during the past two winters.

“These observations reveal a strong causal link between oil and gas emissions, accumulation of air toxics and significant surface production in the atmospheric surface layer,” the study reads.

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USGS Maps Fracking in Fragile Region of Wyoming

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Oil and gas wells, including those involved in hydraulic fracturing—fracking—operations, scar a major portion of southwest Wyoming, according to a recent analysis by the U.S. Geological Survey.

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The Wyoming Landscape Conservation Initiative identified nearly 17,000 oil and gas well pad scars, shown in blue and green, in southwest Wyoming. The scars date from around 1900 to 2009. Map credit: USGS

Nearly 17,000 well pads and former drilling areas associated with oil and natural gas production were identified in satellite images across a 30,000-square-mile region. The maps include well scars dating from around 1900, when oil drilling started in the region, up to 2009, at which point natural gas extraction far outweighed oil production.

Since then, production has only intensified in Wyoming, a leading state in the U.S.’s unconventional oil and gas boom. The mapping effort, a first step in determining how oil and gas drilling operations impact wildlife and ecosystems, focused on southwestern Wyoming because it not only has some of the nation’s largest natural gas reserves, but also because the region has high-quality wildlife habitat and encompasses a major portion of the country’s remaining intact sagebrush steppe.

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

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Inspector General Finds EPA Justified in Intervening to Protect Drinking Water from Fracking

Lipsky sets fire to gas flowing through the hose that he attached to the vent, Oct. 13. Range Resources claims the use of the hose made it seem like Lipsky was setting his water on fire. Photo credit: Julie Dermansky

Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Inspector General found EPA Region 6 was justified in legally intervening to protect Parker County, TX residents’ drinking water from drilling impacts. At Sen. Inhofe’s (R-OK) request, the Inspector General investigated to determine if Region 6’s intervention against Range Resources was due to political influence by the Obama administration.

Lipsky sets fire to gas flowing through the hose that he attached to the vent, Oct. 13. Range Resources claims the use of the hose made it seem like Lipsky was setting his water on fire. Photo credit: Julie Dermansky

Steve Lipsky, who lives near a fracking operation in Weatherford, TX with his flammable water. Photo credit: Gasland Part II.

“The EPA’s internal watchdog has confirmed that the EPA was justified in stepping in to protect residents who were and still are in imminent danger,” said Sharon Wilson, Gulf regional organizer of Earthworks. “Now we need an investigation as to whether political corruption caused EPA to withdraw that protection.”

The EPA invoked its power to protect drinking water in 2010, prompting Oklahoma Sen. Inhofe to request the Inspector General’s investigation in 2011. The EPA withdrew its legal complaint against Range Resources in 2012 despite having a report from an independent scientist showing that a gas well drilled by Range likely polluted nearby water supplies.

The EPA’s withdrawal from Parker County appears to be part of a larger pattern, in which the Obama administration has blocked or abandoned investigations of whether drilling or hydraulic fracturing polluted drinking water. In addition to the case in Parker County, reports in major news outlets indicate that the Obama administration caused the EPA to abandon studies of potential drilling or fracking pollution in Pavillion, WY and Dimock, PA despite evidence of drilling-related harm.

“The Obama administration appears to be more concerned about protecting corporate interests, not the public interest,” said Steve Lipsky, a Weatherford, TX homeowner who sued Range Resources after the EPA named the company the party responsible for contaminating his drinking water well. “President Obama promised that hydraulic fracturing would occur safely. With this IG report, it now seems clear that he is determined to squash any evidence to the contrary.”

Just prior to the release of the Inspector General report, the Texas Railroad Commission (regulator of oil and gas, not railroads) opened an investigation into the case. The EPA intervened in 2010 to protect area drinking water only after the commission refused to do so. The Commission’s new investigation prevents the EPA from legally intervening now as it did in 2010.

“Regulators shouldn’t have to be pressured into doing their job to protect people like me from drilling impacts,” said Shelly Perdue, a Parker County resident with drilling-polluted drinking water. “If what has happened to me is happening to others, I completely understand why communities across the country are voting to ban fracking and drilling.”

“Releasing this report at noon on Christmas Eve shows the Obama administration is obviously embarrassed by its findings,” said Earthworks energy program director Bruce Baizel. “As they should be. The withdrawal of Obama’s EPA is an abject failure of its mission to protect Americans’ health and environment.”

Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.

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