VERNAL — The Bureau of Land Management and Utah State University have agreed to share resources and scientific data to address air quality issues in the Uinta Basin.
Utah BLM director Juan Palma and USU vice president for commercialization and regional development Rob Behunin signed a memorandum of understanding Friday, formalizing the relationship between the federal agency and the university.
"I think it's good to remember the Uinta Basin is really critical to the BLM as it relates to oil and gas," Palma said, noting that the region is No. 1 in the nation for energy development on public lands.
"In order to for us to keep that focus on (issuing) permits to drill, we need to address air quality," he said.
Scientists from a number of agencies and universities have been studying air quality in the Uinta Basin — specifically the formation of unhealthy levels of ozone during the winter months — for the past four years.
The final report from the 2013 Uinta Basin Ozone Study showed that ozone values exceeded federal standards for 22 days in Vernal and 29 days in Roosevelt. Individual episodes of elevated ozone ranged from three to nearly 15 days in length during the 2013 study period.
"Right now, after several years of study, we are starting to understand what can be done to improve air quality in the Basin," Seth Lyman, executive director of USU's Bingham Research Center, said Friday.
"There's still a long way to go, especially with regards to air quality modeling, and that's why this agreement is so important," Lyman said. "The air quality models right now don't accurately represent air quality in the Basin, so we're working to improve that."
The deal signed Friday gives USU scientists access to air quality modeling platforms that have already been created by the BLM. In return, USU will use the air quality data it continues to collect to update those software platforms and then share its research with BLM scientists.
"We've been doing these modeling studies for individual project analyses, and they're very expensive and we use them once and they sit on a shelf," BLM air quality specialist Leonard Herr said.
"Really, the best utilization of these modeling programs is to reuse them, to develop a platform and then update it on occasion," Herr said. "That's what this collaboration is going to do."
Both Lyman and Herr said they believe the partnership will help researchers identify the specific airborne chemicals and environmental factors that lead to winter ozone formation in the region. Once those variables have been nailed down, Herr said, "controls based on sound science" can be implemented to improve air quality.
"Ozone is a strange beast. Almost every human activity will produce ozone precursors," he said. "Because of the nature of ozone formation and the interaction of these pollutants, in some cases if you reduce the wrong pollutant, you actually see ozone increase, not decrease."