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Utah's Producing More Oil, Gas – and Winter Smog

PHOTO: Utah and Colorado are experiencing the same oil and gas exploration boom  and the same hikes in air pollution levels. Map courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.
PHOTO: Utah and Colorado are experiencing the same oil and gas exploration boom and the same hikes in air pollution levels. Map courtesy U.S. Geological Survey.
December 10, 2012

VERNAL, Utah - In Utah's Uinta Basin, 2012 has been a boom year for oil and gas development, with approvals for more than 5,300 new wells. But it has also been a big year for smog. A study to be published in the Journal of Geophysics Research (JGR) finds that fumes from oil and gas development are a big reason for unhealthy ozone levels that peak in Utah during the winter months.

Robin Cooley, a staff attorney for Earthjustice, says the air pollution and smog in the basin is now nearly twice the federal maximum limit for public health.

"The levels in a formerly pristine area of rural Utah are now similar to what we see in areas like Los Angeles. Despite that serious threat to the public health, it's been pretty much been 'business as usual' in terms of oil and gas development."

Earthjustice has filed a lawsuit asking the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to designate the region a "non-attainment area," meaning it has not met the Clean Air Act standards. Winning the case could mean the area has to take certain steps to improve air quality, but a court decision is still about a year away.

Cooley says Colorado and Wyoming are doing better jobs of trying to protect people from bad air quality. They require developers to capture gas fumes and liquid at well sites that would otherwise be released into the atmosphere. In Colorado alone, she says, there are more than 46,000 oil and gas wells, so their effects are far-reaching.

"Development is moving closer and closer to the places where people live. You have local residents with wells that are now in their backyard and they're experiencing health impacts from that - headaches, dizziness, nosebleeds."

In eastern Utah, the wells approved this year bring the total to more than 15,000. Vehicle traffic also hikes ozone levels, and this winter, researchers will be studying weather conditions that create inversions in the Uinta Basin and contribute to the problem.

An article with background on the JGR research is at aspentimes.com. An Earthjustice blog on Denver area smog is at earthjustice.org.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - UT