Study finds that more than half of ozone-forming pollutants in Erie come from drilling activity, Oil and gas wells contribute fuel for ozone pollution, Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science (CIRES) researchers find

Study finds that more than half of ozone-forming pollutants in Erie come from drilling activity by John Aguilar, Janaury 16, 2013, Boulder Daily Camera
Emissions from oil and natural gas operations account for more than half of the pollutants — such as propane and butane — that contribute to ozone formation in Erie, according to a new scientific study published this week. … “There were very, very few data points that did not fall on the natural gas line,” Jessica Gilman, research scientist at CIRES and lead author of the study, said Wednesday. “We had a very strong signature from the raw natural gas.” CIRES is a joint institute of CU and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Its study was published online Monday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

The air quality monitoring effort, dubbed the Boulder Atmospheric Observatory, was conducted in February and March of 2011 on a tower set up a couple of miles east of downtown Erie. It showed that, on average, Erie had highly elevated levels of propane in its air — 10 times the levels found in famously smoggy Pasadena, Calif., and four times those in Houston. The results prompted town leaders last year to place a six-month moratorium on new drilling applications while they gathered additional information on the fast-growing industry. But trying to determine exactly how much of Erie’s propane was due to the thousands of gas wells located in and around town, and how much was due to the effects of being part of a major metropolitan area, was inexact at best.

Until now.

“What we saw at the Boulder Atmospheric Observatory was the mixing of two sources — oil and gas and vehicles,” Joost de Gouw, research physicist at CIRES, said. “For each compound, we can separate how much came from oil and gas and how much came from vehicles.” The researchers arrived at the unique chemical signature by analyzing the chemical makeup of all their air samples, characterizing 53 different types of volatile organic compounds and comparing the results to the composition of raw natural gas. “We estimate 55 percent of the compounds contributing to ozone formation in Erie are from oil and gas,” de Gouw said. And it’s not just Erie that is affected by oil and gas activity, which has exploded in recent years in the gigantic Wattenberg Gas Field northeast of Denver. The study showed that scientists found the telltale signs of drilling emissions in air samples taken in Fort Collins and Boulder, albeit in lesser amounts.

“Air pollution can travel many, many miles downwind from the source,” Gilman said. “Air doesn’t stop at any border.” But whether emissions from oil and gas activity are endangering human health on a wide scale continues to be fiercely debated. Multiple families in Erie and around the state have complained that living so close to wells has made them sick, with nosebleeds, asthma and headaches as common symptoms. … Gordon Pierce, technical services program manager for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s air pollution control division, said the state put in place stricter ozone controls in 2006 and 2008 for the oil and gas industry. New control requirements were established for condensate tanks and new reporting and record-keeping requirements were also implemented. Late last year, Pierce said, the state adopted new EPA rules regarding emissions at gas wells. But he said his agency will continue to monitor the effects of the industry in Colorado, which now has more than 50,000 active wells. There may not be proven health effects from individual volatile organic compounds, Pierce said, but when those compounds are combined with nitrogen oxides from vehicle tailpipes and baked in the sun, they form ozone. At ground level, ozone can cause breathing difficulties and eye irritations, especially among the young and elderly.

Erie Trustee Mark Gruber said the town has done just about all it can on the issue, given the reality that control over the industry rests with the state and not local communities. Furthermore, he wonders how effective additional restrictions would be given the fact that the science indicates that volatile organic compounds are windborne and travel long distances. “By and large, the contamination we see — if it’s in Erie, I’m going to point to Weld County,” he said. “We’re between a rock and a hard place. We’ve got 300 wells, they’ve got 19,000. We can’t build a wall to stop the emissions coming from Weld County.”

Still, he said he welcomes the news this week that emissions from the oil and gas industry can be specifically traced by their chemical makeup. He said it could serve as a powerful tool for dealing with the industry from a factual standpoint, rather than an emotional one. “If they are able to identify this now, it will give us a good starting point in identifying what are the actual impacts of this and how we go about ensuring public health and safety,” Conway said.

Oil and gas wells contribute fuel for ozone pollution, CIRES researchers find Press Release by Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science (CIRES) January 14, 2013
Emissions from oil and natural gas operations north of Denver could add to ozone pollution in that region, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES). “At our test site in Weld County, we found that oil and natural gas operations are the dominant wintertime source of certain gases, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), that act as precursors—‘starting ingredients’—for ozone pollution,” said lead author Jessica Gilman, a CIRES research chemist working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Earth System Research Laboratory. Gilman’s team found high levels of these VOCs, such as propane, in that area. “Average levels of propane were higher than the range of values reported for 28 U.S. cities,” Gilman said. “For example, they were four to nine times higher than in Houston, Texas, and Pasadena, California.”

The researchers originally went to the test site, the Boulder Atmospheric Observatory tower about 2.5 miles east of downtown Erie, in winter 2011 to study nighttime air chemistry. “The high concentrations of several of the VOCs surprised us,” Gilman said. To discover the source of the VOCs, Gilman’s team analyzed more than 550 air samples and determined that oil and natural gas activities were the primary source of those compounds and accounted for 55 percent of the hydrocarbons that contribute to ozone formation in this area. At the time, Weld County had more than 15,000 active oil and gas wells; it currently has about 19,000. The study was published online in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. A component of raw natural gas, VOCs such as propane and ethane can leak during extraction, like bubbles escaping from a soda can. VOCs can then react in the air to form lung-damaging ozone pollution, a chief component of smog.

Since cars, vegetation, livestock, and other sources also emit VOCs, however, it wasn’t initially clear how much of a role oil and gas wells played in the elevated VOC levels. “When our first measurements came out, people would ask, ‘How do you know the high level of pollutants is from natural gas? How do you know it’s not from car exhaust, or cattle farms, or people’s propane grills?’” Gilman said. “But we discovered that emissions from oil and natural gas activities have a unique ‘chemical signature’ that’s very different from emissions from other sources, and it definitively identifies oil and gas wells as the major source of the high levels of VOCs like ethane and propane.”

The researchers uncovered that signature by analyzing the chemical makeup of all the air samples—characterizing 53 different types of VOCs and comparing the results to the composition of raw natural gas. “Each source has its own specific composition—cars look like one thing, trees like another, and so on,” Gilman said. “Just like your nose knows what a flower smells like, or coffee, or a farm, our instruments can ‘smell and identify’ oil and natural gas emissions. The signature is a very clear, robust marker.” Once in the air, the VOC emissions can react with sunlight and nitrogen gases to form ground-level ozone pollution. Like wood fuels a campfire, Gilman said, VOCs can fuel the production of ozone pollution. … “Propane and ethane are fairly long-lived in the atmosphere, so they travel far,” Gilman said. “No matter where you are in the Front Range, you can still see the signature of VOC emissions from oil and natural gas operations.” That’s important since parts of northeastern Colorado marginally exceed EPA standards for ozone pollution. … [Emphasis added]

Coauthors on the study include CIRES/NOAA scientists Brian Lerner, William Kuster, and Joost de Gouw. The research is funded by NOAA. CIRES is a joint institute of CU-Boulder and NOAA.

Click for copy of the study

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