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My view: Protecting and preserving breathable air

Foremost, Breathe Utah is actively interested in protecting and preserving breathable, healthy air.
Foremost, Breathe Utah is actively interested in protecting and preserving breathable, healthy air.
Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Utah places great faith in fossil fuels. Two months ago, the planning phase began for a huge oil and gas expansion project on federal and tribal lands in eastern Utah. ("Planning starts for large oil and gas project in eastern Utah," April 8) Breathe Utah understands that oil and gas inevitably have a role in our energy and commodities portfolio. Vehicles and the plastics industry require petroleum, and natural gas is a relatively clean-burning fuel source. Natural gas burns much more cleanly than coal and has lower overall carbon dioxide output, therefore represents a short-term, interim replacement commodity.

Foremost, Breathe Utah is actively interested in protecting and preserving breathable, healthy air. We also believe that the size and scope of this expansion is inappropriate in light of climate change. However, we appreciate the basic need for jobs, means for families to support themselves. We are not insensitive to the need for economic development. And, realistically, the transition to renewable and non-fossil energy sources could not happen overnight. In the spirit of responsible and inclusive decision-making, we would like to invite an open conversation about the best approach to fossil fuel development in our state.

Extraction operations are fraught with environmental consequences. Of greatest concern, drilling thousands of new wells represents risk of greatly polluting the region’s air. Even small leaks must be avoided, as 4,000 small leaks — at the rate of one small leak per wellhead — amounts to large volumes of vented natural gas.

According to the BLM’s data, 375 billion cubic feet of natural gas escaped into the air between 2009 and 2014 from oil and gas operations on BLM land, mostly in the Western U.S. — enough gas for all the households in Salt Lake County for about 11 years. That wasted gas is air pollution. It makes smog, because it contains methane, VOCs, NOx, benzene, and many other toxins. It causes serious, expensive, well-recognized health problems. New BLM regulations will be somewhat protective, but the heavy concentration of drilling planned for this area imposes a need for special, more demanding, specifications and requirements.

We see two advantages to the expansion project: first, it represents an income and employment source for the tribes, and second, the large size and scope make it possible to require use of pipelines for collection of all gases, eliminating the additional pollution of flaring and trucking of product.

Breathe Utah has developed a list of at least nine best practice points that should be in use for a project of this scope. It includes regular leak testing throughout the well and delivery systems; geologic analysis for rock porosity and protection of existing groundwater, with regular testing thereafter; prohibition from tapping the scarce, fresh water supplies in the area; avoidance of drilling in currently inhabited areas; a consideration of air quality for large populations downwind of the proposed fields. The full list is included in comments submitted to the BLM directly and available at http://www.breatheutah.org/expansion_project.

Our opinion, an attempt to preserve Utahns’ health while supporting our economy, is based on the current knowledge and goals of the board of directors. We wish to participate in an informed dialogue of the issue, based in shared values of a viable economic and environmental future. Please send your thoughts to the board of directors of Breathe Utah, breathe@breatheutah.org. Thank you in advance for your interest in working to solve Utah’s problems with Utah solutions.

Deborah Burney-Sigman is chairwoman of the Breathe Utah board of directors.