Utah’s Air Quality Advocates Looking to Gov, Leg, to Fund Research in 2017

Oil and gas extraction locations in Utah’s Uinta Basin. Red indicates oil wells. Green indicates natural gas wells. Map by UDOTDATA
Oil and gas extraction locations in Utah’s Uinta Basin. Red indicates oil wells. Green indicates natural gas wells. Map by UDOTDATA

-By Elisabeth Luntz

Public Opinion and Public Policy Efforts Converge on Air Quality Problems

In past polls conducted by the non-profit Utah Foundation, air quality and the environment were treated as a single topic — but this year, when the two topics were separated, air quality rose from Utah’s 7th most important issue to the 2nd, just below health care and just above education. 87 percent of self-described liberals and 58 percent of similarly defined conservatives called it an “important issue.”

Liberal voters were more than three times more likely than conservatives to say that government should act to improve air quality – even if it raises taxes or puts jobs at risk. With 90 percent of Utah’s population concentrated on 1 percent of the land and with proposed new growth confined to the same areas, Utah leaders are seeking a better understanding of the unique air quality issues which Utahns face.

Utah’s air quality is regulated by a combination of federal and state regulatory bodies including the Utah State Legislature – and the sheer number of players adds to the complexity of the intended solutions. Representatives from Utah’s Clean Air Caucus, Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), business partners, and dedicated community activists meet regularly to discuss the most pressing air quality issues in the state and to determine remaining solutions addressing both winter particulates and summer ozone.

The Legislature’s Clean Air Caucus

Utah’s Clean Air Caucus is comprised of both Democrats and Republicans in the legislature who are committed to understanding and improving Utah’s air quality. Participants include Senators Todd Weiler (Republican – Woods Cross); Luz Escamilla (Democrat – Salt Lake City); Dr. Brian E. Shiozawa (Republican – Cottonwood Heights) and House Representatives Rebecca Chavez-Houck (Democrat – Salt Lake City); Joel Briscoe (Democrat – Salt Lake City); Lowry Snow (Republican St. George); Becky Edwards (Republican – North Salt Lake); Patrice Arent (Democrat – Millcreek); and Ed Redd (Republican – Logan). The caucus recently met on October 18 and again on November 15 to discuss proposed legislation for the upcoming session. 

At the most recent caucus meeting, Bryce Bird, Director of the Utah Division of Air Quality (DAQ) at the DEQ, discussed his department’s current needs.  Once Governor Herbert completes and releases his proposed budget on Dec 12, Bird can only advocate for Herbert’s plans – a perennial concern among stakeholders and clean air activists. Bird stated that 80 percent of the state’s air monitors are outdated, given EPA requirements, and need to be replaced.  This replacement project was only partially funded last year and requires an additional $1 million. Additionally, $1.5 million is needed for a new permit database, one which would allow Bird’s department to adequately track contributing influences and require compliance via official, state documentation. As is widely known, this part of the effort at industrial accountability is often shortchanged due to intense lobbying efforts behind the scenes. 2017’s budget appears to be just as vulnerable to policy pressures from special interests.

Developments in Clean Air Technology and Research:

Solid and Liquid Food Waste to Energy

Through ongoing research provided by Utah companies, the DEQ has determined that organic waste makes up nearly 30 percent of Utah’s landfills and contributes to significant methane gas emissions. Diverting food waste from landfills not only conserves limited landfill space, but also helps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  

Wasatch Resource Recovery  is a food waste recycling facility in North Salt Lake is working on a project which recovers food and liquid waste from local businesses and converts it into sustainable energy through a methane capture process while ALPRO Energy & Water is developing the Wasatch Resource Recovery facility to process organic waste and convert the organic matter into biogas and bio-based fertilizer.

Biogas is primarily methane (CH4) and carbon dioxide (CO2) and may have small amounts of hydrogen sulfide (H2S), moisture and siloxanes.  It can be used in a gas engine to convert the energy into electricity and heat. From a carbon perspective, as much carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere in the growth of the food as is released when the material is ultimately converted to energy. The biogas process also provides an alternative to fossil fuel extraction. The company is currently seeking an air permit from the DAQ to burn off the methane. Based on previous successes from similar facilities, this technology could have a considerable impact on Utah’s air quality as well as landfills.  It’s also notable that the disposal fees are less than traditional waste management services.

The Utah Winter Fine Particulate Aircraft Study

Utahns are quite familiar with the hazards of their winter inversions which are experienced on an average of 18 days of the year. Contrary to normal atmospheric conditions, inversions trap deadly pollutants in a dense layer of cold air beneath a warm one. Fine particulate pollution during these unpredictable winter events, as well as ozone pollution in the Uinta Basin and other refinery locations, is driven by weather and chemical processes. The snow-covered valley floors reflect rather than absorb heat from the sun, preventing the normal vertical mixing of warm and cold air. Fog exacerbates the problem, facilitating chemical reactions that create even more particles and higher pollutant concentrations. The longer the inversion lasts, the higher the levels of hazardous pollution trapped under it. Lowered visibility during these times is not necessarily indicative of pollution levels because visibility often declines well before pollutants reach harmful levels. Often, the fog hides a terrible reality.   

Last year’s legislative funding allowed planning for the Utah Winter Fine Particulate Aircraft Study (UWFPAS). Particulate matter (PM) is microscopic solid or liquid matter suspended in the atmosphere and thus a serious concern for human lungs. The majority of the PM 2.5 that builds up during these episodes are “secondary particulates,” which means they are formed in the air in a reaction with other chemicals and atmospheric conditions, and are comprised mostly ammonium nitrate. PM 2.5 is especially dangerous because it is extremely small, can travel freely, and permeate areas of the lungs that otherwise filter larger particles out.

Researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder, Colorado, the Utah DAQ, the Universities’ of Utah, Toronto, and Washington will do a six-week, airborne study beginning January 15, 2017, to investigate the chemistry and transport of fine particulate pollution in Northern Utah. The project is funded by NOAA and the state’s legislative appropriation to DAQ.

As air quality health standards become more stringent and as Utah’s population continues to explode, it becomes more challenging to make pollution regulations. Researchers believe that modeling tools must be improved to differentiate between locally-generated pollution and that which flows into the area.  This “fine particulate study” is intended to address the following:

  • A determination of the most important chemical mechanisms for the formation of ammonium nitrate (N₂H₄O₃). This compound comprises 40 percent of the total PM 2.5 mass in the absence of inversions and up to 69 percent during strong inversions.
  • What causes the formation of the PM 2.5 particles.
  • What and where are the specific sources of the pollutants.
  • What and where the “hotspots” are in each of Utah’s vulnerable valleys. 
  • What is the role of Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake in PM 2.5 formation.

This research is expected to clarify the fundamental chemistry and transport mechanisms driving Utah’s winter pollution events as well as to identify where more research and intervention investment would be beneficial. Area source emissions from homes and buildings are predicted to become the greatest source of PM 2.5 as vehicle emissions continue to become cleaner, especially with the roll out of “Tier 3” gasoline.

Storage Tank Emissions Pilot Project (STEPP)

Approximately 11,400 of the state’s oil and gas wells are located in the Uintah Basin, making it an ideal location to analyze so-called “fugitive tank emissions.” $150,000 from the Utah legislature launched a pilot program to investigate this problem where investments were made in infrared (IR) cameras tuned to detect fugitive gasses like methane. These cameras, which provide real-time thermal images of the leaks, help researchers find and record them.

Among many locations, the DEQ operates a monitoring station in Vernal, an emissions epicenter in Utah’s Uinta Basin. Leaks from oil and gas wells are a significant source of volatile organic compounds (VOC). The research helps operators locate and fix leaky storage tanks by providing precise observations that identify VOC sources.  

To date, DAQ reports the IR camera study found 30 percent of the equipment in the Uintah Basin is still leaking methane gas. Methane is not very reactive and not as likely to form ozone as methane and propane and other, heavier compounds leaking from oil and gas wells. However, you tend to have hundreds to thousands of times more methane molecules than any of the other hydrocarbons, causing it to dominate the atmosphere. Methane is also a greenhouse gas and is much more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat from the sun in the atmosphere.

In the coming weeks and months, Utah’s clean air advocates, legislators, and researchers will once again focus their efforts on the air quality problems that have become a perpetual challenge. The efficient use of resources, including expert personnel and tax dollars, are now in play with what many expect to be a very different regulatory climate.

2 Replies to “Utah’s Air Quality Advocates Looking to Gov, Leg, to Fund Research in 2017

    1. these research areas seem to be scraping the barrel for lower emissions. arden popes research proved that air pollution decreases the lung capacity of children.
      what we need is a committed governor, a committed legislature, and a committed deq with rigorous and painful enforcement.

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