Regulators already know they need to crack down on ozone pollution in the Uinta Basin, so why, environmental and health groups ask, are they waiting?
High pollution days this winter, coupled with a scientific report on the basin's ozone problem, confirm federal standards for protecting human health and the environment are already being violated, say the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, WildEarth Guardians and their lawyers.
Robin Cooley, an attorney for the groups challenging the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's refusal to clamp down on the pollution violations, said the data only confirm the need to act.
"Ozone pollution is a serious problem in the Uinta Basin," she said, "and needs to be addressed."
In contrast, oil and gas industry supporters insist more study is needed.
Courtney Loper, Western field director for Energy in Depth, a petroleum industry think tank, wrote in a recent blog, "Utah air quality has a lot to do with the weather," and that scientists, industry, regulators and political leaders were smart to focus on how the weather and pollution are interrelated for now.
"Without that fundamental scientific understanding," she wrote, "regulators could be in a situation of imposing requirements that kill jobs while doing little to nothing to address winter ozone or could even make the situation worse."
Meanwhile, the EPA is sticking by its conclusion that more official, "regulatory" data are needed before any clampdown.
"Until the area has sufficient regulatory monitoring data, the EPA would not be able to consider redesignating the area from unclassifiable to either attainment or nonattainment," said supporting papers with a Dec. 14 letter that also notes the agency is working with the Uintah and Ouray Ute Indian Tribe, the Utah Department of Environmental Quality and industry on getting that data.
Oil and gas operations have been linked to ozone pollution throughout the energy fields of the Western U.S.
Last year's basin study traced up to 98 percent volatile organic compounds, one of the building blocks of ozone pollution, to the energy industry.
It found leaks from tanks and pipes, as well as fumes released from pumps, dryers and compressors as major sources.
Fracking and drill rigs release significant volumes of nitrogen oxides and methane that are also key to ozone formation, the study said. Up to 61 percent of this pollutant appears to be coming from energy development, according to the report.
In announcing the study results last week, representatives of the Western Energy Alliance and the Uintah County Commission noted that industry is already addressing emissions with EPA regulations on new wells that took effect last fall and with the agency's voluntary pollution-reduction program, Ozone Advance.
"The chickens have come home to roost," said Jeremy Nichols, the climate and energy program director for WildEarth Guardians, one of the groups pressing EPA to regulate.
"The frenetic pace of oil and gas development in the Uinta Basin, combined with a terrible lack of regulatory oversight, has translated into a major pollution problem."
"Blaming Old Man Winter for causing poisonous levels of ozone in an area with massive industrial drilling and fracking is laughable," commented Trevor Kincaid of the Center for Western Priorities.
"Ignoring scientific data and objecting to action that would fix the root cause is both irresponsible and dangerous."