Environment & Public Lands
7:30 am
Thu April 3, 2014

Questions Arise About the Role of Methane in Uintah Basin Air Quality

 The Utah Division of Air Quality has just released the third in a series of studies on the winter ozone problem in the Uintah Basin.

One goal of these studies has been to help avoid labeling the Uintah Basin as a non-attainment area for federal air pollution standards.  That could lead to new restrictions on oil and gas development.  And while the studies break new ground in understanding the problem, they’ve all but ignored the role of methane – a greenhouse gas that leaks from drilling operations in substantial quantities. 

Near the banks of the White River, a couple of compressors are sending gas from nearby wells through pipelines laid along the ground.  The raw gas includes ethane, propane and other hydrocarbons, but more than half of it is methane, and a lot of it leaks from facilities like this all over the Uintah Basin.

The Utah Division of Air Quality operates a monitoring station in Vernal – a small, rectangular building that would fit easily on the back of a semi truck.

Bo Call, who heads the monitoring program for the Utah Division of Air Quality, points out some of the sophisticated equipment inside.

Call points to instruments showing the current ozone reading.  “This is at 33.3, so it samples continuously. It’s always sampling . . . We have air that  comes in through this glass pipe and comes back down to this manifold and then all the instruments that are plugged in here will sample off of that manifold . . . 

Brock LeBaron, the deputy director of the Division of Air Quality, says the recipe for winter ozone begins with nitrogen oxides from engine exhaust and volatile organic compounds such as benzene, propane and formaldehyde leaking from wells and valves and pipes.  Sunlight drives the reaction, especially when there’s snow on the ground.

“Snow is not only important as a reflective surface to enhance the photolysis," LeBaron says.  "It acts as actually a matrix for this chemistry to take place on.  It’s kind of a three-dimensional, it’s actually porous, occurs inside the snow and those cold, damp conditions really can produce this kind of unique chemistry.”  

Just what role methane plays in that chemistry depends on who you talk to.  Seth Lyman with Utah State University is one of the lead scientists researching the problem for the state.  Lyman says methane is not very reactive and not as likely to form ozone as ethane and propane and other, heavier compounds leaking from oil and gas wells.

“About 4 to 5 percent of that is from methane," Lyman said in an interview with KUER.  "So even though it’s very unreactive, there’s much more of it than the other compounds, so it starts to play an important role.”

Drew Shindell is an atmospheric scientist with NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Science at Columbia University.  He’s also studied the formation of ground-level ozone, and he says the role of methane – compared to other organic molecules -- can’t be ignored.

“Shindell told KUER, "Any of them play the exact same role, and so it’s really just a function of how many you have around.  Since you tend to have hundreds to thousands of times more methane molecules than any of the other hydrocarbons, it tends to really dominate that process.”

Methane is also a greenhouse gas, much more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat from the sun in the atmosphere. That’s the reason the state of Colorado imposed new rules earlier this year to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas operations.

Kathleen Sgamma is with the drilling industry trade group Western Energy Alliance. She says the industry is already working to comply with new regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency on raw gas emissions.  While fixing leaky plumbing is easy and cost effective, she says some requirements are much more expensive.

“One thing that is required in the new Colorado rules is to use IR cameras – infrared cameras, and some of that is being looked at in Utah as well . . . That’s a good thing to do.  The problem is when you make it a regulation, suddenly, well, first of all it’s expensive, ‘cause some of these IR cameras cost about 100-thousand dollars.  And when you’re required to do it periodically and keep records on that, then it can become costly.”

Western Energy Alliance has contributed $2.75 million dollars to studies of the ozone problem in the Uintah Basin over the past three years – about half of the total spent by a team led by Jim Roberts of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  Roberts says WEA had no strings attached to its funding.

“None at all," Roberts told KUER.  "In fact, there was nothing that we had to worry about in that regard.  We simply told them that’s the way we operate.  We were completely open in the sense that we’re a federal agency and all of our data are available at the appropriate time.  That’s how we operate and they were fine with that.”

And while ozone levels in the Uintah Basin have sometimes been measured at almost twice the federal health standard, some people who live there may still need convincing.

Parents lined up outside Maeser Elementary School near Vernal keep their cars and trucks idling in the cold for half an hour or longer.  Stephanie Schaerer is waiting to pick up her two kids.

“I’ve heard about it," Schaerer says from inside her SUV.  "I haven’t really taken it into much thought or consideration.”

Ozone levels have exceeded federal health standards in the Uintah Basin three out of the last four winters.  With that and the new attention being given to methane emissions, air quality is a problem the residents of eastern Utah – and the rest of the state – can hardly afford to ignore.