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'Leaky' Energy Industry Prompts Regulations

Utah Department of Environmental Quality


Regulators are relying on a growing body of scientific information to craft better pollution controls for the energy industry. They’re drawing on some of the results that scientists have gathered on the Uinta Basin’s ozone pollution problem.

Now important, new research shows that the network of equipment used to extract oil and gas leaks a lot. Many of the surprise leaks are not where you’d expect them – in pipes and at wellheads. Instead, they’re coming from other equipment, like compressors and tanks.

“There’s a lot of potential for leakage,” says Randy Martin, an environmental engineer at Utah State University. “I mean, anywhere you’re moving gas or oil or byproducts, you have a potential for venting to the atmosphere.”

Martin is one of the researchers who’s trying to understand why ground-level ozone pollution gets so bad in rural eastern Utah.

Smog chemicals from the energy industry are blamed for the kind of pollution levels big cities see in summer even though ozone is a winter problem in the rural basin. State, federal and academic teams have offered some answers from their multi-million-dollar studies. And they’ve triggered more questions too.

“Having the opportunity to look into what the causes of these kinds of situation are is exciting,” Martin says. “Like the PM 2.5 pollution puddles we have here along the Wasatch Front: Why? And what can we do about it? The engineering side of it comes in trying to solve the problem. I guess the science side of it comes in trying to figure out what the problem is.”

Discoveries like these have prompted a crackdown on energy industry pollution.

Steve Bloch, legal director for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, He says still tighter regulation is warranted.

“There’s going to have to be some acknowledgement that we need to do it smarter,” he says, “not approving new permits for drilling and turning industry loose and then throwing our hands up in the air that we’re surprised that there’s this problem.”

SUWA and other environmental groups are suing to force the federal government to step in.

Around 10,000 active wells are pumping oil and gas from the Uinta Basin, but that number could nearly triple in coming years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Judy Fahys has reported in Utah for two decades, covering politics, government and business before taking on environmental issues. She loves covering Utah, where petroleum-pipeline spills, the nation’s radioactive legacy and other types of pollution provide endless fodder for stories. Previously, she worked for the Salt Lake Tribune in Utah, and reported on the nation’s capital for States News Service and the Scripps League newspaper chain. She is a longtime member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. She also spent an academic year as a research fellow in the Knight Science Journalism program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In her spare time, she enjoys being out in the environment, especially hiking, gardening and watercolor painting.
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