We tend to think of smog as an urban concern for cities such as Los Angeles, and we’ve certainly had our share of problems in Salt Lake City and the Wasatch Front. In Gov. Gary Herbert’s 2015 State of the State address, he talked about his goals to reduce emissions, executive action he had taken and multiple legislative efforts to address this issue.
What’s still surprising for some of us in Utah is that our air pollution challenges are more than just an urban problem. In fact, only two counties outside of California and Texas made the top 15 list of most-polluted counties — and both are here, in rural northeastern Utah.
What do these counties, Uintah and Duchesne, have in common that could account for this increase in dirty air? They are the two biggest oil producers in our state.
As oil and gas activity has grown in Utah, so too have air quality problems. Ground-level ozone is created when two different types of air pollutants interact to create smog: nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds (VOCs). About 95 percent of VOCs and 60 percent of nitrogen oxides in the Uintah Basin come from energy development.
While expanding energy development has certainly helped our state’s economy, it has also come with a high price, especially to at-risk populations such as children and the elderly. This increase in smog can cause serious health impacts, including aggravated asthma, chronic bronchitis and heart attacks. This adds up to the new reality for everyday Utahns like you and me — lost school and work days, more frequent hospital visits and higher health care costs.
Although Uintah and Duchesne counties are currently in compliance with national smog standards, they had 54 days that exceeded the national standard in 2013 and are likely to fall out of compliance in the next few years unless something is done to fix this problem.
Adding insult to injury, the same pollution sources also often needlessly leak methane (the primary ingredient for natural gas) that could be put to good use. According to a new report from the business consulting firm ICF International, Utah is wasting more than $28 million worth of natural gas from our public and tribal lands, a valuable energy resource that should be generating income for rural and tribal communities. This problem is especially true for tribal lands in Utah, which have the highest level of methane waste for tribal lands of any state.
As Herbert rightly pointed out in his speech, addressing air pollution problems is an economic opportunity. This is especially true for methane waste from oil and gas operations. Here’s why.
By cutting the wasteful practice of flaring or venting methane and fixing leaky pipes and equipment, that methane reaches the market. This means more American energy for heating homes, fueling cars or even powering operations at well sites. And when that methane is no longer wasted, it will mean more revenue for local, state and tribal governments. We’ll also be creating jobs in manufacturing to build cutting-edge technology and in the oil and gas sector for boots on the ground to install equipment and monitor for leaks.
Although these solutions are cost-effective and good for our health, the problems won’t fix themselves. We have to create a framework that encourages these reforms. Fortunately, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is currently considering new efforts to cut methane waste from America’s public and tribal lands. If done right, these new rules will go a long way toward solving this problem and keeping more pollution out of our air, while also keeping more gas in the pipelines.
A strong plan from the BLM would mean more jobs in the oil and gas industry, more American energy put to good use, more state funding for schools and needed infrastructure, and less worrying about our health. It’s in everyone’s best interest to stop this wasteful practice and cut pollution, so let’s support these crucial efforts.
Rachel Otto is executive director of Breathe Utah.