Wyoming DEQ blocks university research on ozone

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Wyoming DEQ blocks university research on ozone

By Dustin Bleizeffer, WyoFile.com

Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) officials came under fire this month for their recommendation not to fund an ongoing mobile monitoring and research effort on ozone pollution, which has plagued residents and workers in the upper Green River Basin in western Wyoming for several years.

The decision angered some local residents, as well as members of the Ozone Advisory Task Force, a group of 26 stakeholders that worked this past year to come up with a consensuslist of recommendations to address the fact that the region is in federal non-attainment status for ozone.

Dustin Bleizeffer

The timing of the action was particularly frustrating for some because the research may now be suspended over the next few critical winter months. As the region enters the coldest part of the year, wide snow cover combined with sunlight and temperature inversions can potentially convert gas field emissions — and other background pollutants — into dangerous ground-level ozone.

During some winters, the region has experienced multiple daytime ozone spikes, while other winters ozone never reaches the daily threshold concentration to endanger human health.

Elaine Crumpley, who served on the Ozone Advisory Task Force, and also serves as chairwoman of the advocacy group Citizens United for Responsible Energy Development (CURED), said she was “absolutely floored” at the decision not to fund the ongoing mobile research headed by University of Wyoming atmospheric sciences professor Dr. Robert Field.

“That was part of our (the ozone task force) main concern; that we continue on with very good site monitoring and other kinds of off-site monitoring as well,” Crumpley told WyoFile.

Wyoming DEQ officials responded to Crumpley and other concerned citizens this week, explaining the reasoning behind the department’s recommendation not to fund Dr. Field’s request.

Wyoming DEQ director Todd Parfitt serves on the board of the multi-agency Pinedale Anticline Project Office (PAPO), which was created to oversee resource management and mitigation efforts related to the massive Pinedale Anticline natural gas field. PAPO regularly funds (contributed by the main operators in the area; Ultra, Shell and QEP) project proposals related to preventing or fixing environmental impacts of the industrial scale natural gas drilling and production activities in the area.

Seperation facilities in the Pinedale Anticline

Separation facilities in the Pinedale Anticline have been consolidated to reduce emissions in an attempt to reduce the potential for ozone. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile – click to enlarge)

Dr. Field’s request for $128,000 to continue his mobile monitoring and research was one of three funding proposals before the PAPO board this month. Parfitt explained to WyoFile that the PAPO board usually only takes project funding requests in May. Because these requests came in December, none had been evaluated.

The other two funding items before the PAPO board this month was a request by the Trust for Public Land’s for $800,000 to help buy back the Plains Exploration & Production Co. (PXP) oil and gas leases in the Wyoming Range (which the board approved at $200,000), and a Bureau of Land Management mitigation project that was deferred,  along with Dr. Field’s proposal, to PAPO’s May meeting.

“A question was raised to the (DEQ) air quality folks about whether or not this information that would be produced (by Dr. Field’s research) was necessary at this time to support what DEQ is putting together in response to EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) to the non-attainment area,” Parfitt told WyoFile. “And the answer was no.”

Parfitt stressed that the recommendation not to fund Dr. Field’s research this month was not a position for or against any of the Ozone Advisory Task Force recommendations. DEQ officials will meet with members of the task force on January 10 in Pinedale to discuss how DEQ might adopt all, some  or none of the recommendations.

Parfitt also said that the decision not to fund Dr. Field’s research was more a matter of timing (proposals brought before the PAPO board this month were “out of sync,” he said), and a matter of limited funding. Parfitt said the PXP buyout request was a priority because it addressed several mitigation efforts related to the Pinedale Anticline, including air quality.

DEQ officials met with Dr. Field this week to learn more about his research and about how it might help DEQ respond to the federal non-attainment status, which will trigger harshly restrictive actions on all activities in the region if not addressed to EPA’s satisfaction.

After meeting with DEQ officials, Dr. Field told WyoFile he has modified his proposal and may even break the project up into two phases if that will help secure funding for the winter ozone season.

“If we have to split the research in half, OK … otherwise we’re going to miss ozone season and that’s crazy,” Field said.

Crumpley said her organization, CURED, may ask that the Sublette County Commission provide funding needed to continue the research this winter. But so far, no formal proposal has been brought to the commission.

While there are many stationary air quality monitors in the upper Green River Basin, Dr. Field’s is the only work that’s mobile which is a critical component to the University of Wyoming’s “spatial air quality assessment” in the region. Field said his research should help scientists understand how methane and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) accumulate in the region and how they react under different atmospheric conditions, “so that DEQ and others can find the best mitigation strategies for control.”

Part of Dr. Field’s research involves detecting plumes, and could help pinpoint specific emission sources that contribute to the formation of ozone.

“We want to see this research to conclusion. … We sort of got stopped before we had the option to finish the job,” said Field.

Dr. Field’s ozone research was recently featured at an American Geophysical Unionconference in San Francisco.

Russell C. Schnell is a University of Wyoming graduate who now serves as physical science administrator for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory. Schnell co-authored one of the first studies on ozone in Wyoming, and he got to see Dr. Field’s AGU presentation.

“It’s pretty interesting data. (Dr. Field) is a little bit innovative,” Schnell told WyoFile. ”The need to understand ozone formation is really quite important. If Wyoming is ever going to mitigate ozone they’re going to have to understand how it’s forming and why.”

He noted that last winter produced startling results. While all the meteorological conditions (snow cover, temperature inversions, sunlight, various pollutants) were there to form ozone, there were no daily ozone spikes measured.

“There is some tantalizing indication that something good happened last year,” Schnell said.

But whether that was because there were fewer wells drilled and a general slowdown in industrial activity, nobody knows for certain.

“If I’d looked at the data I would have predicted ozone, but it didn’t occur,” said Schnell.

— Dustin Bleizeffer is WyoFile editor-in-chief. Reach him at 307-577-6069 or dustin@wyofile.com. Follow Dustin on Twitter @DBleizeffer.

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