As drilling grows, Colo. records first-ever high wintertime ozone levels

Posted: May 21, 2013

Written by

Scott Streater, E&E News PM
Ozone pollution Colorado

Colorado regulators this year have measured elevated wintertime ground-level ozone levels for the first time, prompting an environmental group to petition the Bureau of Land Management to halt all new oil and natural gas drilling on federal lands in northwest Colorado where the pollution was detected.

At issue are new statewide data from the Colorado Air Pollution Control Division that show high ozone levels along the Western Slope, as well as a short-term increase in places along the Front Range, including Rocky Mountain National Park, which never before had measured high ozone.

But the wintertime ozone readings recorded at a rural monitor in Rangely, Colo., in the northwest corner of the state are a major new development. The wintertime ozone phenomenon had previously been seen only in the Uinta Basin in northeast Utah and in the Upper Green River Basin in southern Wyoming -- both of which are in areas that have heavy oil and gas drilling.

In January, the Colorado health department issued its first ozone action alert in the Rangely area. But since that time, air monitors there have recorded a number of ozone violations. Through March 31, the fourth-highest reading at the Rangely site -- the level at which compliance with the federal standard is based -- was 91 parts per billion, well above the federal eight-hour standard of 75 ppb, according to state data.

The three-year average of the fourth-highest reading at the site was 77 ppb, according to state data, placing the area above the 75 ppb threshold set by U.S. EPA. The federal agency has not made any formal determination.

"Certainly there's an indication that there's a problem out there," said Garry Kaufman, the state Air Pollution Control Division's deputy director.

Kaufman, however, cautioned that much more quality assurance and quality control are needed with the data. He also noted that the Rangely area shares the same airshed as the heavily drilled Uinta Basin in neighboring Utah, which has been battling wintertime ozone for years, and that pollution from the nearby basin could be drifting into Colorado.

"This is the first year we've seen it, and it's certainly fair to say that oil and gas is playing a significant role in that," he said. "But it's so new, we've not done the kind of analysis we've done in the Front Range. I think we need to study that more."

But the new data, which the division plans to present this week to Colorado's Air Quality Control Commission, come at a time when a state stakeholders group composed of industry, community and environmental groups is studying whether new air quality regulations for the oil and gas industry are needed as development grows. Drilling in the state is increasing, thanks to the Niobrara Shale formation that underlies much of eastern Colorado's Front Range.

The stakeholders group, which has been meeting since January, plans to submit recommendations to the commission by August, and new regulations could be approved and in effect by the end of the year, Kaufman said.

Kathleen Sgamma, vice president of government and public affairs for the Denver-based Western Energy Alliance, says the industry has known about the high ozone readings for several months. She said the alliance has been working and will continue to work with the state, EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others to address the wintertime ozone issue, especially in the Uinta Basin in Utah.

"Rangely is at the edge of the Uinta Basin area, and it's experiencing the same wintertime ozone as in Utah," Sgamma said. "Uinta Basin operators and the Western Energy Alliance have been very aggressive in addressing wintertime ozone in the basin."

Sgamma also noted that EPA last year implemented new oil and gas industry regulations addressing emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which along with emissions of nitrogen oxides from automobile tailpipes and industry smokestacks are the chief ingredients in the formation of ozone pollution.

"These issues are already being addressed," she said.

But the new ozone numbers shine a spotlight on increased oil and natural gas development in the state, according to WildEarth Guardians. The group points to a state report earlier this year that found nearly half of all emissions of VOCs in Colorado are attributed to the industry.

The new numbers also come at a time when BLM has proposed amending the resource management plan in its White River Field Office in northwest Colorado, where the Rangely monitor is located, to include new management practices and stipulations for as many as 21,000 new natural gas rigs over the next 20 years in Rio Blanco County and parts of Moffat and Garfield counties (EnergyWire, Aug. 23, 2012).

WildEarth Guardians today filed a formal petition asking BLM to halt new oil and gas leases and applications for permits to drill in the White River Field Office.

"Our request is simple: Stop polluting the air and start fixing the problem," said Jeremy Nichols, WildEarth Guardians' climate and energy program director in Denver. "With ramped up oil and gas drilling and fracking, and more coal mining on the horizon, the Bureau of Land Management can't ignore the fact that Colorado's clean air is at risk and that they have an obligation to do something about it."

Steven Hall, a BLM spokesman in Denver, said the agency had not had time to review the petition and could not comment on it. But he said BLM has been proactive in addressing the issue, including providing funding for the Rangely ozone monitor at issue.

Hall also questioned whether anyone could blame the oil and gas industry alone for the problem.

"To say that the air pollution issues in northwest Colorado are the result of commercial activity on public lands in Colorado is premature at the least," he said in an email. "Requesting that all activity on public land be stopped is not reasonable, particularly given that activity on public land in Colorado may not be causing the problem."

Ongoing problem

Wintertime ozone has become a common occurrence in Utah and Wyoming, where the phenomenon was first observed more than five years ago. Wintertime ozone is marked by stagnant air that allows pollution emitted mostly by drilling operations to collect in the lower atmosphere and then be converted into ozone by sunlight and heat reflecting off snowpack on the ground.

EPA last year determined that the Upper Green River Basin, which is home to the Jonah Infill and Pinedale Anticline oil and natural gas fields, is out of compliance with the federal ozone standard and gave the state three years to fix the problem.

EPA monitors in 2011 registered 13 days from January to March when ozone levels in the basin exceeded the health-based standard, including a March 2, 2011, reading of 124 ppb -- higher than the worst ozone levels recorded that year in Los Angeles.

At such high concentrations, ozone can trigger asthma attacks and inflame the conditions of those suffering from bronchitis and emphysema, with small children and the elderly the most at risk.

A recent study conducted primarily by researchers with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Wyoming Department of Health measured daily ozone concentrations in Sublette County, Wyo., between 2008 and 2011 and found that increases in ozone concentrations had adverse health impacts for residents -- most notably an increase in the number of people visiting doctor's offices with respiratory complaints (Greenwire, April 12).

In Utah, ozone monitors this winter have measured concentrations as high as 130 ppb in some parts of the Uinta Basin.

A two-year study led by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, together with EPA, and partly funded by $2 million contributed by members of the Western Energy Alliance, concluded that oil and gas drilling operations are the primary source of the problem (EnergyWire, Feb. 20).

The latest Colorado Air Pollution Control Division report also includes ozone levels recorded this winter from monitors in the Uinta Basin, revealing just how severe the wintertime ozone problem is in Utah.

The fourth-highest average reading from 2011 through the end of March 2013 was measured as 106 ppb at a monitor near the Ouray National Wildlife Refuge, 95 ppb at a monitor at Dinosaur National Monument and 93 ppb near Red Wash, Utah.

A call for state action

The wintertime ozone problem in the Rangely monitor is only one part of the latest state air pollution data to be presented to the commission.

The latest data show that summertime ozone along the Front Range region has spiked since 2012 and that eight monitors now show violations, including monitors in Fort Collins, Greeley and Rocky Mountain National Park that have never before violated ozone standards.

EPA has already designated seven Colorado counties, including the state's most heavily drilled county of Weld, as part of a "nonattainment area." The state faces a December 2015 federal deadline to bring those seven Front Range counties into compliance, Kaufman said, and the latest data certainly could threaten that effort.

Kaufman, however, said regulators believe the unusually hot and dry weather that plagued the state and helped contribute to a devastating wildfire season last year is mostly to blame. And the ultimate decision on whether the seven counties meet the federal deadline will be based on ozone measurements from this year through 2015.

The wintertime ozone issue is a different story, he said.

The issue deserves a lot more study, he added, particularly whether the problem is primarily the result of pollution from drilling operations in the Uinta Basin drifting into northwest Colorado. There are also meteorological issues at play, he said.

"We can't say we saw this huge leap in 2012 in ozone levels due to one specific source," he said.

But Nichols today called on the state to quickly implement stronger air quality regulations on the industry and not wait until the end of the year to act.

"With Colorado's Western Slope now violating federal smog standards, it's critical that the state respond quickly to restore our clean air and the health of this state," Nichols said. "Smog is clearly a statewide issue, and it deserves statewide solutions that work."

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