New Study Explains Wintertime Ozone Pollution in Utah Oil and Gas Fields

A study by NOAA shows how oil and gas exploration can lead to high levels of ozone in the winter

According to new NOAA-led research published in Nature, chemicals released into the air by oil and gas exploration, extraction and related activities can spark reactions that lead to high levels of ozone in wintertime, high enough to exceed federal health levels.

This study comes at a time when new technologies are helping to accelerate oil and gas development in Utah’s Uintah Basin, elsewhere in the United States and in many other countries, and its findings may help air quality managers determine how to best minimize the impact of ozone pollution, according to the report.

When ozone levels spike, EPA experts recommend that people, especially those in sensitive groups, limit time outdoors. Winter ozone pollution is unexpected because normally, the sunlight of summer can spark the chemical reactions that create ozone pollution. Peter Edwards, a scientist with NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences showed that in winter in northeastern Utah, levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) build high enough that they can trigger pollution-forming reactions themselves. In winter, warm air aloft can trap cold air below, creating an inversion of concentrated VOCs.

“These studies in Utah have caused us to think about air pollution chemistry a little differently,” said coauthor Joost de Gouw, a researcher with CIRES working at NOAA ESRL, in the report. “Our findings could help state and local air quality managers who are faced with ozone episodes to design policies, and industry representatives to meet air quality standards in the regions where they operate.”