Officials to study air quality near Routt County oil, gas development sites
May 5, 2012
Steamboat Springs — When Routt County Environmental Health Director Mike Zopf arrived at an active oil well north of Hayden last month with a team of inspectors, he found the air around the site to be crystal clear.
That was until he peered through a special camera.
"At first, we thought it was a very clean site. But when we looked through the viewfinder of an infrared camera, we could see venting at points we didn't expect," Zopf said as he described how the lens revealed streaks of emissions from oil tanks and from the flare on top of the well. The tool was being used by an inspection team with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
"At a different visual optical range, you can really see the emissions," Zopf said.
Since 1971, air in Steamboat Springs constantly has been screened for small particulates that originate from such sources as wood-burning fireplaces, stoves and street sweepers. But emissions that originate from oil and gas wells in Routt County remain largely invisible and unmeasured.
As they anticipate a potential boom in oil and gas production, Zopf and the Routt County Board of Commissioners hope that soon will change.
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"We want to establish a baseline," Zopf said. "We want transparency, and we want people to know what the current (air quality) conditions are and what the trends are. The intent here is to welcome reasonable oil and gas development that does not create adverse effects to our environment."
A regional snapshot
To establish a baseline of air quality in Routt County, Zopf and the commissioners are looking to install air monitors in western Routt County and on top of the courthouse in downtown Steamboat Springs. The devices would detect ozone, a byproduct of some oil and gas emissions.
Sitting in his downtown office Thursday, Zopf said the sites won't be able to pinpoint the exact source of the emissions they pick up (there are many urban sources that contribute to the production of ozone), but the readings will give the county a chance to better understand the oil and gas industry's effect on local air quality.
"With only about 40 wells here, we would just be establishing a database and a baseline," Zopf said. "When we get these ozone monitors, I don't anticipate us seeing a spike (in the gas) that would require an immediate reaction."
When emissions that contain volatile organic compounds are emitted from an oil well, the combination of sunlight and heat can convert the compounds into ozone, a colorless toxic gas.
Up in the atmosphere, ozone is beneficial, Zopf said, but near the ground, it's a respiratory irritant. He said a spike in the gas in rural areas can be attributed to an increase of oil and gas emissions.
"While ozone is trending down nationally, it's actually trending up in some rural areas," Zopf said. "We're seeing it increase in these rural areas most likely as a result of oil and gas, and that's a real concern."
The invisible gas also is expensive to find and track.
Based on his initial research, Zopf said each ozone monitoring site would cost $70,000 to install and another $35,000 annually to monitor and maintain. County commissioners have asked the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, which regulates the energy industry, to fund the sites, but they haven't heard whether the commission will pitch in.
"We're not waiting on them," Commissioner Nancy Stahoviak said Thursday. "We all feel this is a pretty important issue and maybe something that Routt County will have to fund itself."
Zopf said commissioners also have mentioned the possibility of using infrared cameras to inspect sites and as educational tools for operators. Some local operators already use the technology to spot leaks.
But Zopf said a majority of wells in Routt County and Colorado are not regularly tested for emissions, which are estimated during the permitting process based on a well's production level. The higher the estimated emissions, the more steps an operator must take to mitigate them, he said.
Air pollutants don't stop at county lines or political borders, and commissioners in Routt County specifically are looking west at Moffat County, where oil production is busier, and wondering what emissions are making their way across the border.
"It's important to identify the sources coming into our county," Stahoviak said, noting the combination of the sites in western Routt County and Steamboat Springs could help the county take comprehensive snapshots of its regional air quality. "Our borders with Moffat and Rio Blanco are long, so we'll need to figure out the best place to put" an ozone monitor.
Stahoviak said Zopf is working to hire a consultant who would work with the county to figure out where to place the equipment.
Meanwhile, Garfield County installed its second ozone monitor. The county, which is rich in oil and gas production, has sensors in Rifle and Carbondale. Environmental Health Manager Jim Rada said ozone has been measured since 2008 and is giving his department a sense of its normal and seasonal behavior.
"It really brings attention to air quality," he said about the sites. "We continue to watch the data year in and year out and compare it against the standards to make sure we're in compliance. There are lots of pollution sources, and lots of emission sources, but relatively speaking, we still have clean air."
Rada said that since Garfield County started monitoring ozone, it had seen some areas exceed acceptable levels of the gas in early 2008, but he attributed that spike to an active wildfire season.
He added that all of the air quality information is shared with the energy industry officials so they, too, have a better understanding of what the baseline air quality is and can monitor changes in the levels of ozone and volatile organic compounds.
"I think all of this has resulted in the industry coming up with effective controls on their emissions," he said.
Costly to clean
While Garfield County moves forward with its own ozone monitoring equipment, Zopf is thinking back to 1993, when Steamboat started an aggressive campaign to improve the quality of its air, which was threatened by particulate matter.
"The community spent well over a million dollars converting wood-burning fireplaces and stoves into gas," he said. "We did a complete emissions inventory and tried to identify all of the sources that were contributing to the problem."
Air filters were sent to a lab at the University of Nevada, and particles were traced back to fireplaces, restaurant grills, street sanding and the Hayden Station power plant. Then the community worked to reduce those emissions. Zopf said that campaign serves as a reminder of how important air quality is in Steamboat and how costly it can be to bring it back from the brink.
"We have experience with being designated as a non-attainment area, and so the community spent a lot of money to come into compliance not only to improve public health and visibility but to avoid the regulatory pitfalls of noncompliance," Zopf said. "When we talk about oil and gas, we're simply trying to draw the industry into using the best available control technology to minimize the impact of developing this resource because we don't want to get to the point where there are adverse impacts to public safety and welfare."
To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com