BLM, USU Put Heads Together for Uintah Basin Ozone Problem

Utah State University researcher Seth Lyman stands next to an ozone monitor at the Bingham Research Center in Vernal.
Utah State University researcher Seth Lyman stands next to an ozone monitor at the Bingham Research Center in Vernal.

(KCPW News) Ozone is associated with summer air pollution in populated places. Today in northeastern Utah, even within the city limits of Vernal, the air is clean. But almost everything about air pollution here is backwards.

“We have never had ozone exceedances in the summer unless there’s a really strong wildfires influence,” explains Seth Lyman, an air quality expert with Utah State University.

Cities all along the Wasatch Front watch for unhealthy levels of ozone cooking over hot asphalt in the heat of the day, but the Uintah Basin has spikes of unhealthy levels of ozone on the coldest days of the winter.

“It really, more strongly than in Logan or Salt Lake, depends on snow cover,” says Lyman. “If we have adequate snow cover then we get the inversions and when the inversions are here we’re almost certain going to have air quality issues.”

There’s an apocryphal story of an ozone monitor in Sublette County, Wyoming, that got left on all winter and when the workers checked it in the spring, it had recorded levels of ozone that no one thought could happen in the winter….or in a rural area. Within a few years, the EPA started monitoring ozone in the rural west where oil and gas development was happening, including the Uintah Basin, and found that the Wyoming monitor wasn’t a fluke. Winter ozone really is a thing.

No one can deny the correlation between oil and gas development and the formation of winter ozone, but the complex chemistry that takes the precursor emissions from gas and oil wells and transforms them into harmful ozone hasn’t been fully explained, nor have the meteorological conditions that make this a winter time problem.

“We recognize the importance of extractive industry. We also recognize the importance of having good, clean, safe air and we believe we can have them both,” says Mike McKee, Uintah County Commissioner.

The Utah office of the Bureau of Land Management issues the most permits of any state for new drill sites. It’s clear that the goal for the state is to have its energy extraction and its clean air too.

“The Uintah Basin is really critical to the BLM as it relates to oil and gas,” says BLM Director Juan Palma. “We want to continue to keep that focus, but in order for us to continue to keep that focus of permits to drill, we need to be able to address air quality.”

Palma is one of the signatories of a Memorandum of Understanding that would share the federal agency’s research with Utah State University’s Bingham Research Center in Vernal.

A closeup of the ozone monitor.
A closeup of the ozone monitor.

Rob Behunin, Vice President for Advancement and Commercialization at USU, signed for the university.

“Adding to the practical and very pragmatic approach of helping a community, an industry, that’s part of our land grant mission at Utah State. That’s what we’re charged to do and have been charged to do since we were chartered in 1888,” says Behunin.

What USU is being given is a modeling platform developed by the BLM, four years and a million dollars in the making.

“It’s like we’re buying a Ferrari and we’re using it to drive to the market every day. We’re not using these models to their best potential,” says Leonard Herr, BLM’s air resource specialist in Utah. “We expect USU to actually do that. We’re giving them the keys to the Ferrari and we want to seem them roaring up and down the highway. Using these models to actually do planning level analysis that then BLM can look at and make reasoned management decisions off of.” The hope is that this expensive modeling equipment and this collaboration will be a blueprint for air quality management for federally managed lands throughout the West, dealing with similar problems.

Herr says the bigger issue is this: “EPA is looking at lowering the ozone standard. If you look at a map of potential non-attainment areas from this lowered ozone standard, you’re going to see huge areas of the west that are declared non-attainment by EPA. There is no existing methodology, Clean Air Act requirements, anything that addresses how to deal with that. The way to deal with this is collaboratively, multi-juristictionally. We need everyone at the table: the feds, the states, the tribal governments. We all contribute, we’re all affected by it and we’re not going to solve it unless we come together to solve it.”

The BLM can’t do this on its own. USU can’t do this on its own. No one can. The idea is that putting a bunch of heads together can result in an innovative answer to a multi-pronged question, the gist of which still eludes almost everyone at the table.

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