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Toxic air in rural America?

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SALT LAKE CITY — The Uinta Basin is one of six areas across the country highlighted over oil and gas pollution problems in a new study that calls for stricter controls on the industry and an Obama-era methane emissions rule to stay in place.

“When we envision our rural communities, we think of clear skies, open pastures and the ability to inhale clean, healthy air. Unfortunately, the increase in oil and gas drilling has left our rural citizens facing the same poor air quality as we’ve seen in big cities," said Kelly Kuhns, a member of the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments.

"We know the effects of poor air quality — increases in asthma, heart disease, cancer risk and more,” she added.

The report, Country Living, Dirty Air: Oil and Gas Pollution in Rural America,builds on earlier studies by Earthworks and the Clean Air Task Force. Both are nonprofit advocacy organizations that support stricter standards to limit pollution from fossil fuel development.

The groups point to a study by the Utah Department of Environmental Quality that found oil- and gas-related resources were responsible for the majority of ozone-causing emissions in the Uinta Basin.

A oil pump sits idle near Ouray Utah on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016.

A oil pump sits idle near Ouray Utah on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Ozone pollution is a unique winter problem for the basin, formed through a cocktail of precursor pollutants, snow cover and the topography of the region.

State air quality regulators have joined with federal partners that include the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study the basin's ozone problem and get a better handle on the chemistry at play. Researchers also include multiple universities in a first-of-its-kind study that has contributory funding from the oil and gas industry.

The Utah Division of Air Quality also launched a program using infrared technology to detect leaks at tanks and infrastructure to help industry plug emission leaks. The technology is loaned to smaller producers.

Probing ozone in the basin grew into the state's largest study on pollution, unfolding over multiple years with research that continues.

Findings so far include:

• Snow cover and temperature inversions are key elements of high ozone episodes.

• Oil and gas operations were responsible for 98 percent to 99 percent of volatile organic compound emissions and 57 percent to 61 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions

• Study team's current best estimate is that volatile organic compound controls will reduce ozone, but effectiveness of the strategy is unknown

• A voluntary "ozone action day" may be a cost-effective way to reduce peak ozone concentrations.

Earlier this year, the EPA declared the Wasatch Front and portions of Duchesne and Uintah counties in violation of the eight-hour standard for ozone, but only narrowly.

Under this "marginal nonattainment" designation, Utah is not required to submit a formal state implementation plan to the EPA, a step that is required under moderate or serious designations. Utah is still required to meet the standard within the next three years.

The groups behind the report, however, say more needs to be done to safeguard the health of basin residents and others living in rural areas affected by oil and gas pollution.

“As a first step, we must defend existing federal methane pollution safeguards finalized during the Obama administration, and push for additional protections to cover currently unregulated oil and gas industry air pollution sources,” said Lesley Fleischman of the Clean Air Task Force.

“We know this is possible because it has already occurred at the state level in Colorado, where standards have been in place since 2014 and haven’t negatively impacted oil and gas production,” Fleischman said.

Methane contributes to the formation of ozone.

But industry groups say the Obama-era rule, which may be a regulation rolled back by the Trump administration, was likely crafted out of inflated estimates of methane emissions that don't represent what is happening in the industry.

Citing the EPA's own 2018 greenhouse gas inventory, Texans for Natural Gas said the numbers show that methane emissions from oil and gas activities have declined since 1990, and emissions from venting and flaring — the processes targeted by the Obama rule — are lower than what previous EPA assessments concluded.

Overall the group said its analysis found methane emissions from hydraulically fractured natural gas well completions declined 82 percent between 2013 and 2016.

It also said that methane emissions from associated gas venting and flaring during petroleum production declined 17 percent between 2013 and 2016, even as domestic oil production increased by 19 percent.

The other areas looked at across the country in the report are Karnes County, Texas; San Juan County, New Mexico; Washington County, Pennsylvania; Noble County, Ohio; and the Permean Basin of West Texas.