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RBC I On a crisp fall day lined with cottonwoods as yellow-bright as balls of flame, I take a gravel shortcut from Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon toward Vernal, an energy boomtown of some 10,000 souls.
Though I’ve spent the day looking at natural gas wells going in along the fingers of the plateau that cradles Nine Mile’s storied rock art, I’m surprised by what I encounter shortly after hitting asphalt, popping up around each curve in time to Phil Collins crooning a Supremes cover on the radio: Pumpjacks. Everywhere.
You can’t hurry love
No you’ll just have to wait
Two tall as buildings nod up on the right.
She said love don’t come easy
It’s a game of give and take
Two more nod down the left. Then another two.
How long must I wait
How much more must I take
A prickling of several more on the mesa tops, and then
Will cause my heart, heart to break?
The broad dome of dry-grass desert opens up to reveal a vista that is anything but lonely: Densely spaced oil wells and clustered tanks spread to the horizons. When I pull over and climb onto the shoulder, I can feel a vibration deep in my chest—hundreds of pumpjack engines rattling with flatulent backfires like impolite party guests.
If it were a cold, still day with snow carpeting the ground, there would likely be a lungful of nasty air to accompany this chorus and a much hazier view. That’s because wintertime inversions occasionally close over the Uintah Basin like a giant Tupperware lid, sealing in pollutants from its more than 10,000 active oil and gas wells, associated truck traffic, drilling rigs and waste disposal facilities, and help facilitate a chemical reaction that produces ozone levels that rival those found in urban Los Angeles.
In Vernal last winter, monitors recorded ozone levels exceeding national standards on 22 days, and in neighboring Roosevelt, 29 days, with episodes ranging from three to 15 days in length. The gas can harm lungs and exacerbate existing respiratory and cardiac ailments. And though the valley’s population is small enough that it’s difficult to definitively demonstrate local health impacts, levels are certainly high enough to produce them. Utah health officials are currently looking into whether the area has a higher-than-normal infant mortality rate, after a local midwife found an increase in deaths based on obituary records.
As part of a collaboration between the state, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Bureau of Land Management and several academic institutions, researchers are zeroing in on the specific chemistry and sources of those emissions in hopes of decreasing them.
One study published in Nature on Oct. 1 traced local ozone formation back primarily to volatile organic compounds (or VOCs), some 97 percent of which are released by industry activity—a difference from ozone in urban areas, where nitrogen oxides play more of a role. Scientists using a mobile laboratory, meanwhile, recently published findings that individual well pads are likely responsible for the bulk of Uintah Basin emissions, particularly via holding tanks, as well as equipment that separates liquid fuels or water from natural gas.
State and federal officials are already working to tackle some of these sources; the Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 finalized new source performance standards (since updated twice)—to be fully implemented next year—that should cut VOC emissions from new wells by 95 percent. And last month, Utah enacted rules that apply to existing infrastructure as well. These require ongoing maintenance of pollution controls; replacing pneumatic controllers on holding tanks—which allow gases to vent directly into the atmosphere whenever pressure builds enough—with low- or no-bleed valves; putting autoigniters on flares so that they don’t, in the event of extinguishing, release unburned hydrocarbons into the mix; and bottom-filling instead of splash-filling tanker trucks, which will cut those emissions 50 to 60 percent.
Since much of the pollution likely flows from older equipment and practices, says Utah Department of Environmental Quality Deputy Division Director Brock LeBaron, those changes could produce marked improvements, even as new development marches onward. To help ensure compliance, the state has also doubled the number of inspectors working the basin from two to four, and although that still puts each site on an inspection cycle of two to three years, he argues, their presence and visibility should encourage producers to fall in line.
The Bureau of Land Management, meanwhile, increasingly demands pollution controls from companies proposing to develop on public land, says the agency’s Utah air quality specialist, Leonard Herr, such as pipelines to reduce truck traffic, centralized facilities to make emissions capture easier and relying on electricity instead of engines to power field infrastructure. The agency is also heading up a basin-wide air-quality modeling effort to guide future decisions.
“It’s too early to make definitive statements” about results, says Herr. “More wells are being drilled, but ozone is not going up. That said, it’s not going down either.”
By Sarah Gilman
High Country News