UW air quality research goes global
The University of Wyoming’s innovative research on measuring pollution plumes in a Wyoming natural gas field still lacks a solid funding commitment, yet it has drawn interest from European officials as nations there consider tapping their own natural gas resources.
Robert Field, University of Wyoming atmospheric sciences research scientist, helped kicked off the international Green Week 2013 conference in Brussels, Belgium, presenting the university’s research on ozone in the Pinedale Anticline. Green Week is an annual conference hosted by the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Environment.
Environmental regulators in Europe are concerned about how to protect both air quality and water quality if hydraulic fracturing spurs a boom in oil and gas extraction in Europe.
“Fracking” is the technique of pumping water, sand and chemicals into geologic formations to bust up hydrocarbon-laced rock, shale and sands to produce oil and natural gas. The immediate concern over fracking is how to protect groundwater zones perforated by oil and gas wells, yet the proliferation of overall oil and gas activity that fracking allows brings about a whole set of environmental and human health concerns underground, at the surface and in the air.
Fracking has yet to generate oil and gas activity in Europe at levels experienced in the United States. Yet fears of groundwater pollution have led German beer brewers to urge a ban on fracking. A repeal of the United Kingdom’s prohibition on fracking last December sparked protests in front of the Houses of Parliament.
The “battle for hearts and minds” regarding large-scale oil and gas development in Europe is similar to that in the United States, Field said: “A big difference is that the population density of Europe is much higher than the U.S., and impacts are likely closer to where people live and work. This is a major concern and is at the center of the ongoing debate.”
Field – with UW atmospheric sciences colleagues Jeff Soltis and Shane Murphy – had for four years conducted data-driven air quality research in the Pinedale Anticline, a gas-rich area located between two mountain ranges in western Wyoming. For several years, dangerous spikes in ozone have plagued residents, tourists and workers in the region.
Though naturally-occurring ozone in the stratosphere helps protect the earth from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, ozone is also the main component of urban smog. High concentrations of ozone at ground-level are harmful to human health, plants and wildlife.
In December, the inter-agency Pinedale Anticline Project Office (PAPO) – which had funded the previous two years of Field’s research — decided not to approve his proposal to measure and study ozone. The recommendation to decline the proposal came from Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) administrator Todd Parfitt.
After residents complained, DEQ found money for a scaled-back mobile data collection effort this past winter. So far there’s no money to continue UW’s mobile data collection and plume assessment research through the summer.
Green Week garnered significant media interest. Field took part in eight media interviews while in Europe, he said.
Like U.S. states, the European Union’s member nations have considerable autonomy to create their policies guiding fracking and other aspects of oil and gas development. Having no defined EU policy means that some countries may even ban fracking, as France has already done. Poland, on the other hand, is among countries welcoming the expansion of oil and gas development through fracking — which European nations still consider an “unconventional” method of production.
“I’ve maintained an independent perspective,” Field told WyoFile. “I’m not for or against fracking.”
One of the major challenges European nations face as they seek to protect air quality is highlighted by Field’s work on the Anticline: It can be very difficult to determine the precise source of pollution.
Even if researchers can measure and map high concentrations of certain pollutants, they might not know if they are directly related to energy development. Drilling locations are likely to be located in areas with existing industrial development. That, along with the many potential pollution contributors from high population areas, complicates the data that researchers have to interpret.
The UW team spent more than $1 million building their mobile lab. It includes an Ionocon high resolution mass spectrometer, which allows the team to take new air samples every second and instantly identify what compounds are present, rather than taking canisters of air back to the lab for testing. Mobile detection provides much better data and lends greater precision to the team’s investigation of where pollutants are emitted at drilling sites and the processes that cause emissions.
That kind of research is “really the frontier,” UW researcher Shane Murphy said. The team agreed that knowing where pollutants are coming from in the first place, and how they interact once in the atmosphere, is a crucial part of developing an effective regulatory plan to control the pollution.
For years, the standard way of measuring air pollutants near drilling sites has been through static sensors rooted in one place. Field points out that static collection doesn’t allow researchers to compare different locations and pinpoint emissions sources as effectively as mobile data collection.
“Only recently have sensitive and accurate instruments capable of mobile operation become available,” Field said. “By going mobile you can measure at thousands of different locations, and that will revolutionize how we understand air pollution.”
But the UW team isn’t doing that research, at least for now. They took their last reading in the Pinedale Anticline on March 8.
“We have all this great equipment,” Murphy said. “But it’s a little sad, since we can’t go out and do what we want to do.”
More than a year ago, the federal Environmental Protection Agency designated the Pinedale Anticline a non-attainment area for ozone. Area ozone pollution had routinely exceeded federal standards, and on some occasions exceeded that of cities such as Los Angeles. Residents have occasionally been advised not to leave their homes to protect themselves from inhaling toxic levels of ozone.
PAPO’s decision to not continue funding Field’s work drew criticism from both locals and the Air Quality Citizens Advisory Task Force — a group of stakeholders commissioned by DEQ to provide recommendations to help alleviate the area’s air quality problems.
According to Field, PAPO assessed that driving the vehicle that houses the team’s research equipment would stress local wildlife populations in ranges critical to their wintertime survival.
DEQ administrator Todd Parfitt, who also sits on the PAPO board, said in a statement that PAPO staff did not consider Field’s proposal among the five best applications received during the last cycle. Parfitt also stressed PAPO’s commitment to projects focused on directly alleviating pollution. “Dr. Field’s research proposal is competing with other projects where the emphasis is being placed on projects that actually mitigate impacts,” Parfitt wrote.
Field said he’s grateful for the previous support of his work, and would consider seeking a grant from PAPO in the future. He and his colleagues will seek new sources of funding for their projects elsewhere — including Converse County.
“We can’t speak for other people,” Field said, declining to comment on policy decisions. “We are independent arbiters of data. We get good quality data that helps people answer a question.”
Connor Wroe Southard is a writer and journalist living in Laramie.
If you enjoyed this story and would like to see more quality Wyoming journalism, please consider supporting WyoFile: a non-partisan, non-profit news organization dedicated to in-depth reporting on Wyoming’s people, places and policy.