Hunting a New Kind of Fugitive in the West

In exploring the hidden sides of the western shale oil and gas boom, the Rural West Initiative has looked at the impact of energy extraction on communities in North Dakota and Wyoming: on housing and infrastructure, strains on health care, disruption of local banks and the importance of refining state fiscal policies

With our video feature "The New Western Fugitives," we now turn our focus on a side effect of gas extraction that is literally invisible: the build-up of “fugitive” emissions that contribute to high levels of ozone gas. 

According to the EPA:

“Breathing ozone can trigger a variety of health problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation, and congestion. It can worsen bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma. Ground level ozone also can reduce lung function and inflame the linings of the lungs. Repeated exposure may permanently scar lung tissue.”

Along the Green River in Wyoming and Utah, we look at two basins that have some of the worst ozone pollution in the nation. They have recorded ozone levels that sometimes exceed peak conditions in traffic-choked cities like Los Angeles. Following on a lawsuit by a citizens' group in Pinedale, Wyoming, the EPA has declared Wyoming's Upper Green River Basin a "non-attainment zone" for ozone, a ruling that could carry sanctions against the industry if conditions don't improve. Further south, in Utah’s Uintah Basin, the EPA is still studying the problem, along with partners from NOAA, Utah’s Department of Air Quality, and the Bureau of Land Management. Environmentalists are frustrated with the delays and say some regulators seem to be in a state of denial.

But where does the ozone come from? Ozone creation in these areas requires two ingredients: volatile organic compounds, called VOCs, and nitrous oxides, known as NOx. Sun reflected off snow cooks the compounds into ozone, which can be trapped by a lid of warm air – an "inversion" – and threaten public health. 

We visit a gas field with an inspector from the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality and see just how tricky it can be to contain ozone precursors, as fumes escape from old wells, blowback from new wells, leaky pipes and valves, and from evaporation ponds where water produced from drilling is stored. VOCs sources are often elusive, and the technology used to find them is outmoded. 

We look at some promising new technologies for identifying hot spots, and visit a gas field run by the energy giant Anadarko, which is trying to get ahead of future regulation by clamping down on emissions. 

Still, the outlook is uncertain for containing ozone precursors. This winter, ozone readings in the Utah basin were again very high, sometimes nearly twice the amount allowed by the Clean Air Act. But it takes three consecutive years of data for the EPA to declare that a region has unacceptably high ozone levels. An EPA spokesman says such a declaration could not happen before 2015.

 

To follow some of our previous reporting on the western energy boom:

 

 

Last modified Wed, 24 Apr, 2013 at 22:23