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March 28th, 2014

Uintah Basin ozone study is ‘ACS Editor’s Choice’

Citing its significance to the global science community, the American Chemical Society (ACS) has selected a new study that looks at air quality impacts from fracking emissions as an “Editor’s Choice.” The paper, by the scientists of INSTAAR’s Atmospheric Research Lab, has been made available to the public for free as an open-access paper.

Starting in January of this year, ACS selects one paper a day from those accepted by its 44 journals to post to Editor’s Choice as an open-access paper. According to the ACS web site, the papers consist of research “that exemplifies the Society's commitment to improving people's lives through the transforming power of chemistry.”

The paper “Highly Elevated Atmospheric Levels of Volatile Organic Compounds in the Uintah Basin, Utah,” was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. The authors are Detlev Helmig, Chelsea Thompson, Jason Evans, and Jeong-Hoo Park.

The researchers traveled to the Uintah Basin, where natural gas production from fracking has grown rapidly in the past few years. There are approximately 4300 oil- and 6900 gas-producing wells in operation in the Uintah Basin now, with proposals in place for nearly 25,000 more. The scientists used instruments attached to a tower and tethered balloons at the edge of the gas field to measure volatile organic compounds (VOC) in the air from the surface to a height of 500 feet, and the associated rapid photochemical production of ozone, during the winters of 2012 and 2013.

The measurements identified highly elevated levels of ozone, methane, and a suite of non-methane hydrocarbons in the ambient air, in some cases rising to 200-300 times above the regional and seasonal background. These elevated levels coincided with build-up of ambient 1-hour ozone to levels exceeding 150 parts per billion by volume. The total annual release of VOC to the atmosphere was estimated as equivalent to the annual VOC emissions of a fleet of about 100 million automobiles.

These observations reveal a strong causal link between oil and gas emissions and air pollution, at levels that can affect human health. Heath impacts can occur through two pathways: by exceeding chronic thresholds for long-term exposure to benzene; and by contributing to ozone production in excess of the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which can cause respiratory distress.

The State of Utah Department of Environmental Quality supported the research.