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Oil and gas industry team up with clean air advocates on emissions in Uinta Basin — really

SALT LAKE CITY — In an era of lawsuits and accusations, protests, rallies, marches and angry posters, there are those rare, odd times when groups on opposite sides of an issue can lay down their swords and work together.

No, really.

In Utah's oil and gas rich Uinta Basin, advocates for clean air have been meeting with the extraction industry — producers whose wells are thousands of feet deep and whose holding tanks and truck traffic are part of a mosaic creating an unusual and unprecedented wintertime ozone problem.

"Being able to describe a problem so we can move onto the next thing of what we can do about that problem has been a diplomatic success," said Deborah Burney-Sigman, executive director of Breathe Utah.

"It has never felt kumbaya, but has felt good to agree on a goal," she said.

Over the last winter, oil and gas industry companies voluntarily completed a checklist of "to do" procedures for reducing emissions, such as capturing leaks, reducing idling, installing vapor controls at locations with tanks, using solar power at injection wells and instituting best management practices through beefed up training for employees.

The checklist is long, Burney-Sigman said, but part of an effort that recognizes that excess ozone levels in the basin not only threaten the continued viability of the industry, but compromise public health in an extremely complex situation not easily solved.

"The fact that we have come together with a consensus project is exciting because it means the entire community is concerned about ozone," she said.

The voluntary work by industry to reduce emissions will be recognized later this month through the sponsorship of the LORA Award by the Uinta Basin's Tri-County Health Department. The Leadership in Ozone Reduction Awareness award recognizes operators who took steps to reduce those ozone precursors during ozone events.

Applications from industry are due Monday, with the award to be given out April 11.

This was a particularly bad year for ozone pollution in the basin.

"What is a good year for skiing and from a water perspective is a horrible year for ozone," Burney-Sigman said.

Data provided by the Utah Division of Air Quality shows values from the Ouray monitor on tribal land well over the federal limits of 70 parts per billion the last four years.

Those measurements were: 96 in 2016; 103 in 2017; 67 in 2018; and 98 in 2019.

Jay Baker, the division's ozone coordinator, said those reported numbers represent the fourth highest, so three measurements were even higher than that.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires an average of those values over a three-year period when it makes an determination if the region is meeting the federal threshold for compliance with clean air standards.

Baker said the ozone problem is going to be a tough one for the state to solve, not only in the basin, but elsewhere.

"Everything helps, ultimately. It is not normal to see advocates and industry working together. It is a good thing in this case."

Rikki Hrenko-Browning, president of the Utah Petroleum Association, said industry has been an active participant in the working group's effort because of the unique ozone challenges in the basin.

Emissions levels don't vary from year to year, but depending on atmospheric conditions, the ozone levels can either spike or remain within values that don't violate federal standards, she said.

"That can be very challenging to industry."

Burney-Sigman conceded the conversations within the group have been tricky, and it depends on the starting point.

"The modeling bears out that the wintertime ozone conditions require snow, but ozone would not build up if there were no emissions from oil and gas. Industry would say emissions would not build up if there wasn't any snow. Saying it one way will offend somebody," she said.

Hrenko-Browning said industry works with Utah State University researchers to do infrared surveillance in advance of the ozone season to detect leaks and is proactive as ozone starts to build to capture precursor pollutants that led to episodic problems.

"Partnerships take time to build and trust takes time to build, but I think we are going down a good path," she said.

The work is important to curtail emissions in a thoughtful way that mitigates harm to industry, she added.

While oil and gas emissions have been reduced over the last several years, she said higher ozone levels triggered the 2018 EPA marginal "nonattainment" designation and will likely push a classification to moderate "nonattainment" in 2021.

Forcing additional controls on operators will materially damage the industry, yet risk not solving the ozone problem, she added.

As additional ways to reduce emissions are hammered out through the working group's efforts, participants are anxious to see how this first year's efforts bear out.

"As an advocacy group, Breathe Utah realizes that the only results that will stick are the ones that don't stick it to industry," Burney-Stigman said.

Correction: An earlier version listed Jay Baker's name as Jay Barker.