WyoFile Energy Report
Wyoming escapes ozone season, but not ozone problem

Pinedale area residents can breathe easy now that the wintertime ozone season has passed without any exceedences of the federal 8-hour ozone threshold. Just as nice, it appears Wyoming may have also moved beyond a season of b.s. and denial surrounding the root cause of the ozone problem in the Pinedale region.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Rather than talk about the unsubstantiated notion that the problem is blown-in from Interstate 80 or Salt Lake City, as he has in the past, Gov. Matt Mead appears fully focused on the key ingredient; air pollution from natural gas production in the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah fields.

This week the Pinedale Roundup quoted Mead during his visit to the Pinedale area; “It is not acceptable to me to have ozone in Sublette County. I am pro oil and gas development, but I am not into having to keep your kids in the house because of an (ozone) warning,” Mead said. “I will tell you the companies that work in this part of the state have continued to meet with me to work through this, but it is an issue that has not been resolved.”

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality’s Air Quality Division issued two “ozone action days” this winter based on forecasts that conditions were likely to trigger ozone spikes. But, there were no actual exceedences of the federal 8-hour ozone threshold. There were several 1-hour exceedences measured this winter, however. (Check Wyoming DEQ’s ozone page for more details.)

In 2011, ground-level ozone spiked 13 times in the Upper Green River Basin triggering state warnings for people to remain indoors. It was a disappointing episode because the region had escaped ozone spikes for a couple of winters after operators began curbing their pollution emissions.

And that’s the trouble; Wyoming’s ozone is as unpredictable as the weather. Did the Pinedale region escape ozone spikes this winter because natural gas operators continued to curb their emissions, or because there was less snowpack in the basin area this year?

“There are so many factors involved it’s hard to say why that is,” said Wyoming DEQ spokesman Keith Guille.

Ozone, typically associated with urban smog, is a serious human health threat at ground-level — particularly for the elderly and young children. The threat of ozone came to the once-pristine Upper Green River Basin airshed along with a natural gas drilling boom in the 2000s. Operators in the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah gas fields drilled nearly 3,000 new wells in the region creating an industrial zone where, for eons, there had been nothing but empty space and wildlife. Mother Nature created a calm, peaceful valley prone to temperature inversions, full snow-cover and other unique conditions. But it was the new natural gas activity that brought volatile organic compounds (VOC) from leaky pipes and nitrogen oxides (NOx) from tailpipe emissions.

Seperation facilities in the Pinedale Anticline
Separation facilities in the Pinedale Anticline have been consolidated to reduce emissions. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile – click to enlarge)

If there’s an inversion, the pollutants will hang low in the valley — along with smoke from wood-burning stoves and other background pollution. And if the valley is blanketed in snow, and there’s no cloud-cover and no wind, then the VOCs and NOx are exposed to sunlight from above and below. These conditions — most likely to occur during the coldest part of the winter — will bake the pollutants, triggering a photochemical reaction that creates ozone.

The danger is, nobody knows exactly how much we have to cut emissions of VOCs and NOx before the region is no longer prone to ozone spikes — no matter what Mother Nature does from winter to winter. The region may have escaped this season without any 8-hour ozone spikes, but it’s no indication that the problem has gone away.

The Pinedale Anticline and Jonah operators have been working closely with Wyoming DEQ to lower VOC and NOx emissions, with some success. A network of pipelines drastically cut tanker-truck traffic. Drilling rigs have been equipped with catalytic converters while other rigs have been converted to natural gas-powered engines. EnCana Oil & Gas USA says it has a crew of workers whose only job is to check for leaks everyday in the Jonah field and patch them up.

These efforts, along with a state-level air quality program considered to be one of the toughest in the nation, are the reason that Wyoming operators didn’t squawk much this week when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued its first standards to limit pollution from oil and gas production activities. John Robitaille, vice president of the Petroleum Association of Wyoming, told the press it looked as though EPA plucked its new rules straight from Wyoming’s playbook.

But is Wyoming doing enough? Don’t forget that a legal standard doesn’t necessarily reflect what’s hazardous to human health. Wyoming was ahead of federal regulators on emissions from oil and gas operations in 2011 when citizens in the Pinedale region were forced to stay indoors for 10 days that winter due to dangerous ozone levels — in pristine Wyoming. Last year EPA was under the gun to lower its ozone threshold based on our growing understanding of the human health hazards of ozone, but the Obama administration backed off hoping to gain favor for delaying the estimated $90 billion cost to implement the lower standards.

Conclusively measuring the human health cost is much more difficult.

This year, Wyoming and EPA continue to prepare for a pending “non-attainment” designation in the Pinedale region, which means the ozone threat got so bad that the federal government could decide to block all new sources of pollution here unless the state proves it’s on track to resolve the problem. So far, the plan includes moving forward with some 20,000 new natural gas wells in western and central portions of the state.

No kidding; EnCana says its proposed Normally Pressured Lance (NPL) field surrounding the Jonah includes up to 3,500 new wells over a 10-year period — with near zero emissions. It would drill at a pace of 350 new wells each year, compared to the 71 new wells drilled in Jonah last year.

“What we stirve for on NPL is a zero emissions footprint. … We have gotten to a point where we understand the quipment and the kind of equipment it takes,” EnCana spokesman Randy Teeuwen told WyoFile.

Don’t blame folks in the Pinedale region if they’re not holding their breath.

“Until they have a program in place that prevents violations of the National Ambient Air Quality Act standard, they can’t even really move forward with permitting this project,” said Bruce Pendery of the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

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

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Dustin Bleizeffer

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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