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 [email protected]