Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
FILE— A oil pump sits idle near Ouray, Utah, on Thursday, Feb. 4, 2016. Crescent Point Energy is in the early phases of planning a nearly 4,000-well oil and gas project in the Uinta Basin, which could help jump-start the economy.

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah is home to one of only two places in the world where scientists see the unique formation of wintertime ozone, a pollutant that can negatively impact respiratory health.

The phenomena in the Uinta Basin, which also occurs in Wyoming's Upper Green River Basin, will likely lead to regulatory action by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency this fall and with it more regulations, according to research scientist Seth Lyman.

An inversion episode in late January and February in the Utah basin logged 10 days of ozone that exceeded the federal threshold of 70 parts per billion, with the Ouray monitor picking up levels as high as 111 parts per billion, Lyman told lawmakers.

"It is certainly a threat in that area that could lead to increased regulation," said Lyman, who is executive director and senior research scientist with Utah State University's Bingham Entrepreneurship and Energy Research Center.

The scientist gave a presentation to members of the Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment Interim Committee, noting a more extensive report is due in November.

Lyman said it is clear, however, that the majority of the ozone problem stems from oil and gas production in the region — which does not emit more pollutants than other areas of the country but instead finds itself at odds with uniquely strong and prolonged wintertime inversions that trap the ozone on valley floors.

The EPA will average those spikes in ozone concentrations over three years — from 2014 to 2016, a time when Ouray once again proved problematic for the pollution, Lyman said.

While that monitor averaged 80 or 81 parts per billion — clearly over the federal threshold — measurements in Vernal or Roosevelt were able to meet the standard with measurements of 66 and 68, respectively.

Lyman said the differences make sense because ozone tends to concentrate in lower elevations where inversions are stronger and last longer. Ouray sits at 4,803 feet above sea level; Vernal has an elevation of 5,268 feet.

The research combines the efforts USU, University of Utah, BYU, Utah Division of Air Quality, multiple federal partners, and the oil and gas industry to find ways to reduce the problem of ozone without harming the economy of the area, which is 60 percent dependent on oil and gas activity.

Lyman said the research is challenged by the relatively fledgling scientific knowledge about wintertime ozone in rural areas, which only landed on scientific radars in 2006.

Current air models aren't designed for the research that is taking place, he added.

"Those models are not designed for the strong, localized inversions that we have in the basin," Lyman said. "We are working to improve that."

The research, funded in part by the Utah Legislature, led to the deployment of infrared cameras to detect vapor leaks from storage tanks and other oil and gas infrastructure. Once those leaks were repaired and plugged by industry, that led to improvements in readings, Lyman said.

Scientists are now looking at the emission of organic compounds from pools of production water from industry activity that are not injected back into the ground.

An inventory of that source found the ponds contribute 3 percent to 5 percent of the emissions, which Lyman said is actually more problematic than it seems.

"They are more reactive than the typical oil and gas-related air pollution, so they play an outsized role in the pollution," he said.

Continuing research will also focus on the interplay between depth of snow cover and the atmosphere.

Snow itself may act as a reservoir to capture the organic compounds involved in ozone formation, so an increased understanding of that dynamic will help shape the science.

There are also efforts to develop methods for accurately forecasting high ozone days so industry and the public can plan ahead.

In October 2015, the EPA revised the ozone standard under the Clean Air Act, dropping it from 75 parts per billion to a more stringent level of 70 parts per billion.

Clean air advocates argued the standard should have been set at a more protective level for public health, down to 65 parts per billion.