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Recent news on the toxic air pollution from natural gas production

Amy Mall

Posted February 15, 2011

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Ozone is the key ingredient of smog and can cause asthma attacks, irreversible lung damage, and even premature death. People typically think of smog in heavily populated areas, but when it comes to oil and gas drilling, that stereotype does not apply. Last year I blogged on how rural Utah now has some of the highest ozone in the nation; the air was “unhealthy” for 40 days last winter.

Increased oil and gas drilling has pushed ozone levels to unprecedented highs in rural and urban areas alike in the Rocky Mountain region. It also indicates elevated levels of the pollutants that contribute to ozone, including Volatile Organic Compounds like benzene, toluene and formaldehyde--as well as nitrogen oxides.

Wyoming also has had astronomically high ozone levels. The state instituted new rules to control the air emissions from oil and gas operations. However, it seems these new rules might not be enough. Yesterday, the ozone in Boulder, Wyoming reached a 1-hour average late in the day of 106 parts per billion (ppb). The current ozone limit is 75 ppb average over 8 hours, so this level did not violate the rules, but it is a warning signal.

Also today and yesterday, the State of Colorado issued the first every ozone alerts for western Rio Blanco County -- an area with fewer than 3,000 residents. It's a good sign that high ozone got the attention of regulators.

Last week there was an excellent report from a Pennsylvania news station on air quality concerns stemming from natural gas drilling there. It appears from that report, unfortunately, that Pennsylvania regulators are not doing as much as they can to monitor and control dangerous air pollutants being emitted from natural gas operations.

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Elaine crumpleyFeb 16 2011 10:55 AM

The Upper Green River did in fact have 5 hours of ozone exceedences during an 8 hour running time yesterday. The Wyoming Range and Daniel South monitors indicated violations above 75 ppb over 8 hours from 5:30 pm until 9:30 pm. Yet there was not, and is still not an ozone alert for this region.

Amy MallFeb 16 2011 11:37 AM

Elaine: Thank you for posting such important information.

Ken CaronFeb 18 2011 04:59 PM

Thank-you for the interesting information. Your analysis of gases penetrating the ozone layer does not include the natural gas releases from the melting Siberian Tundra. Canada and Alaska's Arctic Tundra are also melting and releasing methane gas. Can you tell us how much of the methane released from those sources contribute to global warming?

Amy MallFeb 22 2011 04:12 PM

Hi Ken: Thanks for writing. I turned to the experts in our Climate Center who referred me to a paper entitled: "Amount and timing of permafrost carbon release in response to climate warming," published last month by the International Meteorological Institute in Stockholm. Here are excerpts from the paper's abstract:

"The thaw and release of carbon currently frozen in permafrost will increase atmospheric CO2 concentrations and amplify surface warming to initiate a positive permafrost carbon feedback (PCF) on climate......We predict that the PCF will change the arctic from a carbon sink to a source after the mid-2020s and is strong enough to cancel 42–88% of the total global land sink."

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