Actually, Foreign and Naturally Occurring Sources Are the Main Contributors of Ozone in Utah

Last month, the Salt Lake Tribune published a story that sought to blame the bulk of Utah’s ozone pollution on local industrial sources, including the state’s oil and natural gas industry.

But as Energy In Depth pointed out at the time, the primary reasons for ozone in Utah, and other states like Colorado and California, is because of industrial pollution from China that drifts over the Pacific Ocean and from natural-occurring sources. It’s the reason Utah’s Department of Environmental Quality submitted a 179(b) International Transport Demonstration to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which, if granted, would recognize that the emission sources that are beyond the agency’s control impede the state’s ability to ever be taken off the ozone nonattainment status list.

Now, the Tribune is back with a new story that acknowledges that Utah’s naturally-occurring sources and sources originating outside the state’s border comprise the majority of the pollution. Further, it concedes that addressing the state’s ozone problems isn’t as easy as asking the industrial sector to lower their emissions – an area where they’re already making tremendous progress. The Tribune reported:

“Utah’s ongoing violations of federal ozone standards along the northern Wasatch Front and in the Uintah Basin are going to be difficult to solve, a top state regulator told lawmakers on Wednesday.

“But [Bryce] Bird (director of the DAQ), who made the comments before the interim committee on Public Utilities, Energy and Technology, said addressing the issue is challenging. Over 80% of the pollution that causes ozone — namely volatile organic compounds and oxides of nitrogen — originate beyond Utah’s borders or emanates from natural sources like sagebrush, pine trees and wildfire smoke, Bird said.” (emphasis added)

The Tribune then stated the small amount of locally produced ozone and the wide variety of sources it comes from:

Only 20% of emissions are from people and originate within Utah, according to the state’s data, and the largest source of those emissions is from vehicles. Restaurants, gas stations, dry cleaners, airplanes, and trains also contribute to the problem.” (emphasis added)

China is Primary Problem

These recent comments from DAQ comes as no surprise to anyone monitoring ozone pollution in western states, as the Utah DEQ wrote to EPA in its demonstration:

“A semi-permanent low-pressure system off the coast of China lofts pollutant-laden air to the mid and upper free troposphere. Fast winds within that region of the atmosphere then move this air and associated pollutants eastward toward the U.S. Pacific coast.

“This occurs within days to weeks with ozone persisting at these altitudes because of the relative lack of chemical sinks and low temperatures in this part of the atmosphere. Semi-permanent high-pressure system over the U.S. Pacific Coast then brings down the upper tropospheric air back to the surface over the western U.S.”

The chart below, included in the demonstration, show the constant impact of foreign sources, as well as the high levels of naturally occurring sources and sources from other states:

In addition to industrial pollution from Asia, ozone levels also increase in Utah and other mountain states because of the wildfires in California that further hurt air quality. The only difference is that wildfire smoke is visible while ozone pollution is not.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has also published research on the impact of Chinese pollution on U.S. ozone levels and even NPR has reported on the problem with foreign sources contributing to ozone pollution:

“The U.S. is producing less air pollution, but smog levels are still rising in the western U.S. because of pollutants released in Asian countries that then drift over the Pacific Ocean.”

Conclusion

Utah is making strong progress in reducing the pollutants that lead to ozone – as DEQ noted:

“Over the last 15 years, the Wasatch Front airshed has achieved nearly a 40 percent reduction in volatile organic compounds.”

Furthermore, the oil and gas industry has also made huge investments to reduce pollution as the Tribune points out:

“The oil refineries spent around $450 million over the last decade on a program that reduced their emissions by 40 percent, Bird added.”

But it’s quite clear from a wide range of research that foreign pollution and naturally occurring sources are the primary causes of ozone pollution in Utah and across the western United States.

It’s a positive sign to see that the Salt Lake Tribune is helping readers gain a better understanding of this complex challenge and addressing the core problems of this issue, rather than misguidedly blaming the oil and natural gas industry.

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