Ozone spikes aren’t Mother Nature’s fault

Metropolitan-type smog pollution spiked past federal thresholds 13 times this winter and triggered 10 state-issued advisories, warning people in the Pinedale area to avoid going outdoors — in Wyoming.

It’s a source of major frustration and embarrassment for the state.

“From my perspective as governor, you know, I do not like hearing, in Pinedale Wyoming, an advisory that says keep your young kids in the house. If we lived in Los Angeles, maybe that’s an everyday occurrence. But if you live in Pinedale Wyoming — or frankly, anywhere in Wyoming where we tout our air quality — you don’t want to hear that,” Gov. Matt Mead said during a press conference on Tuesday.

Here’s how the ozone spikes occur; When the wind doesn’t blow, and the sun reflects off the wide, snow-covered landscape in the upper Green River Basin, it causes a photochemical reaction with nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds creating ozone. Officials say the main source of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds are engines powering the Pinedale Anticline natural gas field.

State regulatory officials note that ozone levels typically remain well below federal thresholds even on days before and after ozone had spiked this winter, which means sun and snow-cover triggers a spike — even at the lower emissions level.

“Mother Nature comes about and we have these sort of perfect snow days with the great snow, the sun and no wind, and all of sudden we find out we’ve got a lot more work to do because we still have these alerts out there. So I’m not sure it’s a problem of rules and regulations,” said Mead.

It can be said that before major drilling operations began, the state and Pinedale Anticline operators had little indication that the upper Green River Basin would be prone to ozone spikes by adding tailpipe emissions. But state and industry officials risk stoking frustrations among area residents if they appear to blame the weather.

One thing is clear to people who live in the area; There was no ozone problem before the natural gas industry came, and it’s not a trade-off they’re willing to accept.

“Anybody who used to be here in the 70s knew we had the best air in the country,” Rita Donham, of Cora, said during a public meeting with state and industry officials in March. “Everyone is getting sick of this.”

After ozone spikes in 2008, both the state and the Pinedale Anticline operators — Shell, Ultra Petroleum and QEP Energy Co. — took major steps to reduce emissions of NOx and VOCs, and to establish air quality monitoring and a public alert system. The efforts succeeded in reducing VOC emissions from about 44 tons per day in 2008 to 31 tons per day this year. NOx emissions were reduced from nearly 30 tons per day in 2007 to 16 tons per day this year.

The operators and Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality thought they had the ozone problem licked. But following this winter’s 13 high ozone events, it’s obvious that the upper Green River Basin is an area sensitive to tailpipe emissions.

“I’m really disappointed that we haven’t solved that damned ozone problem,” Wyoming DEQ administrator John Corra told WyoFile this week.

The political danger for industry and state regulators is to put the blame on the weather. And Pinedale area residents bristle at the notion that the real problem is smog blowing in from Salt Lake City — a theory that Gov. Mead indicated may still be on the table; “I don’t know whether they are or not,” he said.

The temptation among state and industry officials to blame the weather is strong.

When the coal industry logged several exceedences of the particulate matter 10 (PM 10) 24-hour standard in the Powder River Basin, Wyoming DEQ responded by implementing a “Natural Events Action Plan.” The plan requires the mines to implement response plans to reduce dust during high wind events, and it also meant that PM 10 24-hour exceedences no longer puts the industry at risk of non-attainment status under federal air quality laws.

Without the Natural Events Action Plan the industry may have been forced to reduce the amount of surface disturbance, possibly resulting in limiting coal production.

Corra said this week that the Natural Events Action Plan was one of the first things that came to mind when the ozone issue came up in Pinedale.

“Unfortunately, (the Environmental Protection Agency) specifically excludes in that policy the kind of things that are happening in Sublette County,” said Corra.

— Contact Dustin Bleizeffer at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com.

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Well looks like the Pinedale environuts look at one bad guy and that would be oil&gas. I live in Big Piney but I work 100mi. south near I-80 on said 13 days driving to work the air was worse on I-80. I call B.S.

  2. I used to play Bass in a country rock band out of Cody in the mid-70’s called the Ozone Band, from that Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen tune ” Lost in the Ozone Again”. That was before ‘all things ozone’ became evil. Commander Cody should regularly play Pinedale , provided there are no ozone alerts in progress. Bad for the singing voice , I would think.

    Ozone at ground level is also quite bad for plant life. It varies from species to species and the research is just getting going, but the effects of ground level ozone on plants may also become an issue. It takes nearly 3 weeks for ozone to ” decay” , that which doesn’t get absorbed into the ground, that is. The Ozone Cycle is a leading producer of photochemical smog, a/k/a/ the ” Brown Cloud” that we used to tar Los Angeles with and Salt Lake City later. Catalytic converters on cars have reduced those sources greatly, but the gas wells and associated equipment around Pinedale obviously didn’t get the Memo . Or Wyoming DEQ didn’t send it….

    A lot of different hydrocarbons can produce Ozone. Nitrous oxides can be controlled, and are regulated already in many cases , but the free hydrocarbons that are likely the source of the Pinedale scourge need to be targetted. One bit of research shows that the ozone can be produced 20 miles away from the hydrocarbon emission. It’s not Point Source Pollution. Uh-oh….

    Wasn’t there a retired atmospheric physicist living in the Pinedale area a few years back who actually owned and used a Spectrophotmeter ? He could see and quantify the colorless gases in the air. He was doing this because of the increase in smog that was causing a loss of visibility. No ‘mo clear air, and he pegged why that was. Where is he these days?

    My retired airline captain friend tells me a great anecdotal story about visibility over the Green River Basin deteriorating right before his eyes. He used to fly the Denver to Jackson leg a lot, all times of year. Back in the DC-3 and Convair 580 prop days, late 60’s early to mid-70’s , he recalls that as soon as the plane got to altitude out of Denver, he could see the Tetons clearly and crisply 300 miles away. Over the years as the Salt Lake smogbank picked up, that range got lesser and lesser. He could also trace some of the smog plumes back to the Jim Bridger powerplant.

    We all know that today neither the Wind River Mountains nor the Tetons are as clear and crisp as they once were in our own lifetimes, at any altitude. And yes, that goes hand in glove with the Pinedale gas well boom.

    It’s just one more reason why Wyoming truely deserves the moniker of the ” National Sacrifice Zone”. We give up a lot these days to get our paws on those greasy grimy greenbacks. Too bad none of the CEO’s and major stockholders of the energy companies operating in Pinedale actually live there with their families, in February.

    We gotta find that freelance spectrophotomer guy… we need him now more than ever.

  3. In 1990 one could be drive around Farson and have great, clear views of the mountains in almost all directions… now the mountains are these hazy dark things on the horizon. We’ve blown it. Environmental documents for the next huge well field, coal mine, gas processing plant, or soda ash mine all sell us beautiful fantasies as to how air standards will be met. When they aren’t we somehow blame Salt Lake City, God, or unreasonable Greenies (who actually think kids should be able to play outside without breathing gear). The only one to blame is insatiable greed. When there are jobs and money on the line suddenly the standards change, and we put the children at higher levels of risk and pray that the physics don’t work the same for us.
    Respiratory disorders in the state are spiking up. We can’t put tons upon tons of poisons into the air and somehow expect we’re magically going to maintain high air quality. In many respects Pinedale has poorer air quality than LA. Too bad Pinedale doesn’t have access to health care anywhere near the quality available in LA. These are the costs of the boom in an energy colony… too bad we don’t have the integrity to put that in the environmental analyses we base our “decisions” to build these projects on. We can develop resources and maintain reasonable environmental quality but utimately it makes the development less profitable. I’m hoping we choose the health of our families over higher profits but I’m a realist. All those dead presidents on the money seem to speak louder that the coughing of our children.