Mountain States

Let’s Take A Closer Look at the Boulder Air Quality Study

Can a study link high ozone levels to oil and gas development without actually modeling ozone or analyzing its source? Based on the headlines generated by one preliminary research project, the answer seems to be yes.

In presentations of air monitoring data from the Boulder, Colo. area, researchers have drawn connections between high ozone levels in the region and oil and gas development east of the city in Weld County.  The study has not yet been published or peer-reviewed, and the raw data have not yet been made available to the public.

But there are a couple of things to note about the study before assuming that operations in Weld County are the root cause of poor air quality in Boulder.

First off, the researchers’ modeling did not include ozone or analyze for particular sources.

As lead researcher Detlev Helmig, associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, told at a Boulder County Commissioner’s meeting in October,

We did not do ozone production modeling here. We did not do a study that would attribute ozone to particular sources. This monitoring we did actually did not even include ozone. But I find it so interesting and the connection is so important that I kind of threw this in to the data in context and also illustrate the value of these observations.” (emphasis added)

The study has actually been monitoring for methane, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) at the City of Boulder Reservoir since February 2017.

During yesterday’s presentation to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment’s Air Quality Control Commission, Helmig did note that the project was only funded to monitor and collect data and not to conduct analysis:

“We’ve really only poked around.  The dilemma here is… we’ve been funded by Boulder County basically to do the monitoring, provide numbers and data and put them in a table and that’s been it.  All of this, we’re not funded to do this, we just kind of do this during our lunch breaks.  We have no funded research to do any of this analysis. But you know the crazy scientists we get carried away and we want to get the most value out of this.  All I showed is preliminary.  It’s research in the works.”

Notably, this ongoing monitoring is being sponsored in part by the extremist anti-fracking group Earthworks. Their own previous ozone research has been directly disputed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. As the Fort-Worth Star Telegram reported in 2016, “operations associated with the energy industry in Fort Worth and Dallas contribute 1.8 parts per billion to ozone levels on the worst days, from May to September, while planes, trains and automobiles contribute 14.1 parts per billion.”

Colorado Ozone

Colorado’s unique topography, elevation and weather create specific ozone challenges that make this issue much more complex than what simple correlations may suggest. As the Greeley Tribune Editorial Board recently said in reference to the study:

“We don’t doubt, to some extent, oil and gas activity here does affect surrounding areas. But like most things oil and gas related, we also think the reality of the situation is quite a bit more complex and nuanced than these results, as delivered, seem to indicate.”

There are a multitude of potential emissions sources and other factors that could contribute to elevated ozone levels, such as seasonal or time of day effects, or trapping emissions from emitters as far away as China.

A 2017 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study “found that increased pollution from Asia, which has tripled its nitrogen oxide emissions since 1990, is to blame for the persistence of smog in the West, despite American laws reducing the smog-forming chemicals coming from automobile tailpipes and factories. Smog has decreased overall in the eastern United States, even though levels can spike during heat waves.” And a 2015 Center for Regulatory Solutions report explained:

“Air quality officials also report higher levels of background ozone in Western states than other parts of the U.S.”

Despite these challenges, Colorado has made great strides in ozone reduction and air quality improvement over the past few decades—a testament to the state’s collaborative nature and ability to bring together different stakeholders to find solutions.  At a time where Colorado’s economy has boomed, oil and gas production has seen a great increase, and population has swelled, the state’s air quality has improved and ozone levels have continued on a downward trendline.

Colorado Ozone and the Oil and Natural Gas Industry

It may be tempting to extrapolate from Helmig’s data that the oil and natural gas industry is to blame for elevated ozone levels in Boulder, but a 2016 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study found that oil and gas emissions account for an average of only 17 percent of daily VOCs that create ground level ozone.

Further, a recent study found that, “[o]zone transport from outside of Colorado is largest contributor to high ozone in the Denver/NFR NAA [North Front Range Nonattainment Area]” while “70-75 [percent] of the ozone was due to non-Colorado sources for the average of the 10 highest 2011 modeled days.” Meanwhile, sources from within state borders only contributed 13 – 34 percent to the high ozone days.

Yet, emissions reductions remain a key priority for Colorado’s oil and natural gas industry. According to the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), Colorado’s oil and gas industry has halved its emissions of VOCs in the Denver area over the past six years, during a time when production quadrupled statewide.  Operators have also adopted a voluntary program to further reduce emissions during summer months when ozone levels tend to spike.


Colorado has a long history of elevated ozone that has specific and unique challenges. Coloradans – including the oil and natural gas industry – have made real efforts and strides to improve the state’s air quality. Helmig deserves credit for being open about the limitations of his own data gathering.  Hopefully once Helmig’s raw data is available they can be used to further reduce regional emissions from a variety of sources, but let’s not be too quick to place all the blame on oil and gas operations.

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