Rodger Steen: Protect our air
January 4, 2012
Did you know that the air in Routt County is very clean? This is due in part to our location between the Mount Zirkel and Flat Tops wilderness areas, both of which were designated for special protection from pollution in the 1977 Clean Air Act. That designation was responsible for forcing the sulfur controls on both Hayden Station power plant units as well as Units 1 and 2 of the Craig power plant. It also has kept other large-scale industries out of our area.
Oil and gas exploration and production is moving into our county. Historically, the industry has brought air emissions with it — the more wells and drill rigs, the more air pollution. Garfield County; Uintah County, Utah; and the Pinedale Anticline area of northwest Wyoming are examples of areas with enough density of wells and emissions to result in air quality that has exceeded health standards. We don't want this to happen to us. Not only is it unhealthy, but the accompanying odor and regional haze are counter to our outdoor, tourist and agricultural character.
In 2012, we are considerably aided in limiting these air emissions through recently tightened regulations (EPA and Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment), but the industry can do better and we encourage them to do so out of respect for the Yampa Valley's environmental resources that fuel our tourist-based economy.
The primary sources of emissions associated with oil and gas exploration, development and production are:
■ The well itself, emitting methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
■ The drilling rig and transport truck diesel engines emitting nitrogen oxides and particulate matter
■ Transport and maintenance truck movement over county and private unpaved roadways emitting fugitive dust
These sources can have the following impacts:
■ Elevated concentrations of NO2 adjacent to high diesel engine activity (a local health concern)
■ Regional elevated concentrations of ozone (a health concern)
■ Introduction of obnoxious odors from the VOCs
■ Increase in acidification of lakes and streams
■ Increase in regional haze, which affects our long-range clear vistas
■ Increase in distinct black smoke plumes in a very clean regional atmosphere
■ Increase in dustiness and possible unsafe driving conditions on unpaved roads
■ Increase in greenhouse gases from methane releases
These have been serious impacts in other areas of the country due to historic oil and gas development; none needs to occur in Routt County if we can combine currently available emission controls and good management practices. To do this, we need to rely on more than the rules; we need to rely on serious commitment from industry and comprehensive oversight by our county and state officials.
Well-head VOC gases, which cause odors and create ozone through atmospheric chemistry, can be virtually eliminated by routing all hydrocarbon gases through an on-site combustion device, even when VOC emissions are below the regulatory thresholds. Methane releases can be eliminated in the same way and would minimize the emissions of greenhouse gases. Once a well-site switches to production, the largest emissions can be from the transport trucks hauling process water and petroleum away. Use of newer and properly maintained transport truck engines can decrease NO2 emissions by more than half from old engines, and well-maintained trucks also minimize the chance for spills. We are all familiar with fugitive road dust and the control methods are obvious. Good management practices in drilling and production have multiple and obvious benefits.
Just one or two wells in Routt County may have local odors and affect only a few people, and they won't cause regional air problems. However, it is the aggregation of the emissions from 20 or more wells that may cause the regional problems, and we, the community, county and industry need to address these issues now rather than having to play catch-up later.
Co-chairman of the Community Alliance of the Yampa Valley's Oil and Gas Committee; professional air pollution engineer