Utah air quality regulations could affect western RBC air quality

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RBC | The Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ) held a hearing on proposed new and amended regulations to modernize and improve the state’s oversight of oil and gas operation emissions on Oct. 25 in Vernal, Utah. A previous hearing was held on these rules in Salt Lake City on Oct. 19.
The regulations, slated to take effect in January, will move Utah into a “permit by rule” system instead of the current “permit by permit” system. The rules will apply to new and modified oil and gas sources. They include changes for emission inventories, tank truck loading, registration, storage vessels, dehydrators, volatile organic compound controls, leak detection and repair and requirements for natural gas engines used on well sites.
Along with the west end of Rio Blanco County (RBC), the two eastern Utah counties of Duchesne and Uintah, just across the Colorado state line, have received F grades from the American Lung Association (ALA) for ozone for the last few years on average. The Utah counties both have had much worse ozone conditions than RBC. In the three year period covered by the ALA Report: 2013-2015, RBC had six weighted average days of hazardous ozone while Uintah County had 34 and Duchesne County had 21. Both Utah counties are major centers of oil and gas production which produce known ozone-forming pollutants. The ozone events are also affected by adverse weather conditions and air inversions.
Colorado was represented last week by six western slope residents who testified in favor of the Utah effort. All the Coloradans were concerned about air quality impacts on the Rangely area as well as to the Dinosaur National Monument air shed and the Grand Valley. Five of the six were members of Citizens for Clean Air (CCA) from Grand Junction.
“High ozone levels are known to cause breathing difficulties in children and the elderly,” said Kristin Winn, a member of the CCA group. “We went to Vernal to support the DAQ’s efforts to improve oversight of oil and gas operations. Such efforts can only help air quality in western Colorado.” A representative from the Western Colorado Congress also testified in support of the new rules.
Ozone is a colorless gas composed of three oxygen atoms (O3). It occurs both in the Earth’s upper atmosphere and at ground level. It can be good or bad, depending on where it is. Good ozone, according to the ALA, occurs six to 30 miles above the planet’s surface where it forms a protective layer that shields us from most of the sun’s harmful ultraviolet light. Bad ozone is near ground level and is formed when volatile organic compounds and nitrous oxide pollutants emitted by cars, power plants, industrial boilers, refineries, and chemical plants as well as oil and gas facilities react with heat and sunlight.
Ground level ozone can cause breathing difficulties, lung damage, increased asthma attacks, and pose a risk of early death from heart or lung disease. Especially vulnerable populations include the young, whose lungs are still developing, the elderly, people that already have lung problems like asthma, and people who are active outdoors.
Like Colorado, Utah has a split between rural and urbanized counties experiencing high ozone events. Utah’s “Front Range” with ozone issues is the urbanized zone on the west flank of the Wasatch Mountains, roughly from Provo to north of Ogden. In Colorado, hazardous ozone levels have been identified in western RBC along with nine Front Range Colorado counties where automobile traffic is a considerable part of the problem.
The Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment organization has long asked for more stringent limits on air pollution in the state, claiming that there is “no safe level of air pollution” and that “any standard is arbitrary.” They point out that some Americans are dying as much as a decade earlier than they would otherwise due to ozone exposure.
Dr. Karl Breitenbach, a Vernal physician who has practiced there since 1987, testified in favor of the new regulations, citing health effects he sees in patients primarily in the winter months. He stressed the importance of required emissions inventories and inspection data being made available to the public. He was joined by fellow Vernal resident Tom Elder who expressed his gratitude to DAQ for this effort and said, “air quality is the number one quality of life issue in the Uintah Basin.”
Retired Utah State University/Uintah Basin professor Virginia Exton also testified in favor of the new regulations and urged DAQ to have oil and gas operators capture any methane releases as well. “Flaring (the burn-off release of natural gas) really bothers me. That gas needs to be captured,” she pleaded.
Only two commenters suggested any disagreement with the rules. Duane Shepherd, a gas field chemical vendor, said the rules were generally all right, but added that the companies he’s dealt with, namely Anadarko, already do what the new rules ask. Josh Hershey, an engineer with EnerVest, an oil and gas company, attempted to dismiss the importance of “air events” vs. cost, expressing concern about compliance expense.
At the SLC hearing the week before, Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based industry trade group, supported DAQ’s new approach with some small tweaks. She stated, “I think we’re getting to a good place where [the new rules] represent improvement for Utah air quality and better certainty for our oil and gas companies.” Western Energy Alliance was previously known as the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States.
The rules will apply to some 12,300 crude oil and natural gas wells in Utah, the majority of which are in the Uintah Basin. Bill Stringer, a Uintah County Commissioner and member of the Utah Air Quality Board, served as the hearing officer in Vernal. Stringer is a retired manager for the Bureau of Land Management in Utah and Colorado.