Posted on November 6, 2014 by James Holtkamp
Ozone is the quintessential ambient pollutant. It is the result of complicated chemical reactions involving NOx and VOCs, sunlight, humidity and temperature. It is primarily an urban pollutant, because that is where most of the NOx and VOCs are emitted, but it is also a regional challenge particularly in the eastern U.S.
The Uintah Basin of eastern Utah is the quintessential Western U.S. Empty Quarter. It is sparsely populated and windswept, and is a high-altitude desert. It is home to the Ute Indian Tribe, and the greater part of the Basin is Indian Country for purposes of environmental regulation, meaning EPA – not the State of Utah – has regulatory authority. The Basin is home to extensive reserves of oil, gas, oil shale and oil sands.
If the Basin is a dry, windy environment, then why have ambient ozone levels spiked dramatically in the Basin the last few years, during the winter, no less? It turns out that ozone is not only created during hot muggy summer days, but when VOCs build up during winter inversions with a lot of sun and snow. Periodic winter high pressure systems trap the VOCs and the ozone appears. EPA has classified the Basin as “unclassifiable” for ozone and has denied an administrative petition to classify the area as nonattainment. That denial is currently under review at the D.C. Circuit.
So where is this aberrant ozone coming from? Although oil and gas has been produced in the Basin for decades, the fracking boom has swept into Eastern Utah with a vengeance, and the number of wells and associated facilities has mushroomed. Utah DEQ, EPA Region 8, the counties, the Tribe, NGOs and the operators are jointly working on strategies to mitigate the problem, including newly promulgated state rules requiring retrofit of existing wells with equipment to reduce VOCs. These efforts are complicated, however, by the jurisdictional differences over air issues as between Utah DEQ and EPA and the results are sometimes a bit clumsy. But all of the stakeholders see the need to address the ozone issue proactively, and the end result will hopefully be a model for addressing similar issues in North Dakota, western Wyoming and Western Colorado.