News

Smoggy Skies in the American West Point to Fossil Fuels

Benjamin Storrow with the Casper Star Tribune reported this past weekend on the prospect of eight Wyoming counties (effectively 1/3 of the state) falling into violation of federal limits on ozone, the key ingredient of smog.

The report coincides with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recent release of ozone data for the years 2011-2013 and a recent statement from agency staff that federal ozone limits–now set at 0.075 parts per million–should be strengthened to between 0.070 parts per million and 0.060 in order to effectively protect public health.  The agency is currently under court order to promulgate new ambient air quality standards for ozone in 2015.

The revelations piqued our curiosity about the broader impacts of stronger health standards for ozone in the American West.  Taking recently posted data from the Environmental Protection Agency, we mapped out which counties in the west are violating current ozone air quality standards and which counties would be in violation of stronger ozone standards, depending on where they’re ultimately set.  As the map below shows, the clean air landscape of the west stands to change dramatically.  More importantly, what the map below shows is that areas throughout the west are already experiencing unhealthy levels of smog.

You can check out an interactive version of this map here >>

Western Areas Violating Ozone Standards

Western U.S. Counties Violating Current and Proposed Ozone Air Quality Standards

The landscape stands in stark contrast to what the Environmental Protection Agency found in 2012.  As the map below shows, only a handful of areas in the west were violating ozone limits and designated “nonattainment” (a nonattainment designation under the Clean Air Act spurs a mandatory clean up).  Effectively, only parts of central and southern California, the Phoenix metro area in Arizona, the Denver metro area of Colorado, and a portion of western Wyoming were deemed to have unhealthy smog levels.

map8hr_2008

Based on more recent data, it appears that a number of new areas are violating current standards, including Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, and northwest Colorado and northeastern Utah.  More importantly, it appears that under the Environmental Protection Agency’s proposed standards, the number of areas likely to be designated nonattainment would be greatly expanded, including areas in every state except Montana.  Put another way, the American West is facing a serious health crisis and an unprecedented smog clean up challenge.

Not exactly what you would expect for a region renowned for its big skies and clean air.

The big question, though, is what is the cause of this burgeoning smog problem?  While California has its unchecked urban development, cars, trucks, and industrial agriculture, in the interior west, booming oil and gas drilling and fracking is a key driver.  In fact, earlier this year, we put together a map showing the overlap between active oil and gas wells and areas likely to violate the Environmental Protection Agency’s new ozone standards.  The overlap is uncanny.

Western_OilGas_OzoneAq_2014Wells (1)

Overlap between potential ozone nonattainment areas and active oil and gas wells in the western U.S.

The reason for this overlap is due to the fact that oil and gas drilling and fracking operations are huge sources of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides, which are key ozone forming pollutants.  Take the Uinta Basin of northeastern Utah and northwestern Colorado.  Recent studies found that oil and gas operations in this rural region release as much volatile organic compound pollution as 100 million cars, an absolutely shocking amount of pollution.  In Colorado, even with the adoption of recent rules to limit pollution, oil and gas operations are still predicted to release 64% of all volatile organic compounds by 2018.  Even in an urban region like Denver, oil and gas operations are projected to release more than 60% of all smog forming compounds, far more than all the cars and trucks in the area.

Even in areas without high ozone levels, drilling and fracking is filling the atmosphere with immense amounts of pollution.  Most recently, the Western Regional Air Partnership reported that oil and gas operations in the Bakken shale region of North Dakota stand to release 367,000 tons of volatile organic compounds by 2015.  That’s equal to the amount released annually from 27 million cars (according to the Environmental Protection Agency, an average car releases 27.33 pounds of volatile organic compounds annually).  This is in a region with a population of less than a million.

Certainly, in other parts of the West, like in Nevada, Salt lake City, Washington, and Oregon, the challenge has more to do with increasing population and urban development.  More people means more cars, more trucks, etc.  But whether linked to fracking or population, the fact is that the western United States is going to have to come to terms with the need to keep growth in check.

The looming smog crisis in the American West presents an opportunity to get it right for our health and future.  Without a doubt, we should be alarmed at the prospect of such a vast amount of the region falling into violation of ozone health limits.  However, the solution isn’t to bemoan the challenge, it’s to embrace it.

Its time for all states in the west to start taking steps to limit fossil fuel pollution, especially from fracking, and to keep growth and urban development in check.  Our goal everywhere should be to keep the west smog-free.

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