NOAA Study Finds “Small” Ozone Impact from Front Range Oil & Gas Development
A new study by government researchers with the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at University of Colorado Boulder and National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Earth System Research Laboratory Chemical Sciences Division, finds that oil and natural gas development along Colorado’s northern Front Range is having a “small” impact on ozone formation. From a press release announcing the study:
“[Erin McDuffie] and her colleagues found that the VOCs from oil and gas contribute an average of 17 percent to local, chemically produced ozone during the summer. “Seventeen percent is small but potentially still significant,” said Steve Brown, co-author and scientist at the NOAA ESRL Chemical Sciences Division.” (emphasis added)
The study puts it this way:
“Applying NOx reductions of 5.5% based on EPA NEI-2011 inventories (see section 2.4.2), Cases 1 and 2 suggest that O&NG activity contributes 18.6% (3.1 ppbv) to maximum photochemical O3, in comparison to 17.4% (2.9 ppbv) from VOC emissions alone. However, NEI inventory estimates of O&NG NOx emissions may be overestimated [e.g., Ahmadov et al., 2015]. Thus, the total O&NG contribution to modeled maximum photochemical O3 at diel average mixing ratios of NOx and VOCs is between 17.4 and 18.6% or 2.9 and 3.1 ppbv.” (emphasis added)
In other words, the study finds that oil and gas production accounts for about 17 percent of overall ozone contribution. Longtime observers will note that these new findings debunk the talking points of activist groups who have been attempting to lay the blame for high ozone levels in the area on energy development – and that includes the previous claims of this new study’s co-author, Steve Brown.
New findings run contrary to activist air claims in Erie, CO
Brown’s statement that shale development has a “small” contribution to ozone levels is especially notable, considering that in 2012, Brown gave a presentation on regional air quality to the Erie, Colorado’s Board of Trustees at the behest of anti-fracking groups.
As EID has previously reported, Brown’s presentation focused on measurements of propane and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). He was involved in a one-month research project in the winter of 2011 at a NOAA observation tower in Erie, in which the researchers recorded higher levels of propane in the air than are usually seen in Pasadena, Calif., and Houston.
Brown went ahead and presented this data to the Board before the peer review process. He even told the Board that “…I don’t really have time to take you through the details of an analysis like this. I’m just going to ask you to believe what I tell you…”
While his conclusions lacked peer review, activist groups pounced on the information to convince the town to adopt a ban on energy development. Just weeks after his presentation, the Board adopted an “emergency ordinance” that imposed a six-month moratorium on new oil and gas development. Shortly later, NOAA revealed that the town had passed a local law based solely on Brown’s opinion and the alarmist claims of environmental activists. In a March 16 notice on its website NOAA addressed the budding controversy saying:
“Please note that analysis of the data from this study is in progress. When a peer-reviewed paper is published, we will make it available to the public.”
From there, Brown’s claims began to unravel under scrutiny in media reports and further research.
The Town of Erie commissioned a pair of reports to address the NOAA data, which both found a low health risk. In fact, one of the studies commissioned by the town found that “even a lifetime exposure to the concentrations cited would have a ‘low’ risk of causing adverse health effects on Erie residents” while another found that “levels as measured by NOAA were “1,000-fold or more below those considered to be of health concern.” As the Boulder Daily Camera reported at the time, Erie Mayor Joe Wilson feared that Brown’s research had been used “politically and inaccurately” by “fracking opponents.”
Later, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) also looked into the claims, conducting an air monitoring project at an Erie well site during drilling and hydraulic fracturing. The CDPHE placed monitors within a few hundred yards of the well site, and found:
“No significant concentrations were recorded that could be directly attributed to well completion operations at this well pad.”
In 2013, CIRES researchers came back in the news again with a study on energy development and ozone, claiming that oil and natural gas development activities were generating “55 percent of the volatile organic compounds” around the town of Erie, Colorado. Activist groups seized on the findings from CIRES, as evidenced by this piece from the Sierra Club:
“In addition, northerly winds blow in the propane from leaking wells in Weld, where oil and gas development accounts for 55 percent of the region’s ozone-forming hydrocarbons. According to a University of Colorado Boulder study, Fort Collins’s atmospheric propane levels exceed those of car-dense Houston.” (emphasis added)
That study was later rebuked when Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment ran a separate air monitoring study by placing monitors within a few hundred yards of a well site, finding levels “well within acceptable limits to protect public health.”
Despite what activist groups claim, air quality on Colorado’s Front Range has been rapidly improving. According to Will Allison, director of the state’s Air Pollution Control Division, air quality “is very much better” since the 1970s when Denver was famously known for its “brown cloud.” And that improvement has taken place as the region’s population – and oil and natural gas production –has skyrocketed.
This new finding that oil and natural gas development along Colorado’s Front Range is a “small” contributor to the region’s ozone completely debunks activists’ talking points. But as we have seen before, that is not likely to dissuade them from their attempts to ban fracking, along with the jobs, economic and environmental benefits that go along with it.