After a sixth smog alert this year for the Pinedale natural gas production area in western Wyoming, Gov. Matt Mead, major producers and the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) met earlier this month to address a six-year-old air quality attainment issue that had seemed to be in remission over the past two years.

The state and gas industry are wrestling with elevated ozone levels that are occurring at unusual times in the winter when conditions cook up atypical amounts of ozone from gas drilling operations' air emissions at Pinedale, the nation's third largest gas production field, according to major producers in the area.

Local news media coverage is beginning to focus on residents complaining that health risks are being swept aside in the wave of shale gas expansion that has gripped areas like Pinedale in Sublette County, WY. A spokesperson for Gov. Mead said the governor is aware of the concerns and has delegated the response to DEQ, which is "the best entity to talk about all of the work under way to deal with the ozone levels."

DEQ has concluded that the problem is surfacing in a somewhat "perfect storm" context when there is an even snow distribution of four to six inches throughout the Pinedale Anticline and Upper Green Valley Basin, very little wind, abundant sunlight and the drilling rig emissions. Surrounding mountains create a "pot"-like setting in which the ozone is trapped and "cooked," DEQ spokesperson Keith Guille told NGI. When this resulted in elevated ozone levels on some winter days in 2005 and 2006, DEQ began studies that continue in one form or another today, Guille said.

Three of the Pinedale producers, which have a working alliance in the area -- Ultra Petroleum, QEP Resources and Shell -- have implemented both long- and short-term measures to reduce drilling emissions, and they are "working hard" with DEQ, along with other local and state officials, "to be sure our emissions reduction activities, including our ozone contingency plans, are as effective as possible," a QEP spokesperson said.

Following a March 7 meeting with the governor, DEQ representatives and others, Ultra, Shell and QEP agreed that there had been some "important progress," but there is still work to be done across the basin, the spokesperson said.

Among the steps taken by the producers are mitigating equipment on the liquids gathering systems, catalyst technology on multiple drilling rigs and controls on production facilities. This has reportedly reduced nitrogen oxides (NOx) and volatile organic compounds (VOC), two precursors to ozone formation, the producer spokesperson said.

Ozone is created by a chemical reaction between NOx and VOCs in the presence of sunlight; extensive snow ground cover doubles the sunlight effect in clear conditions.

"In addition to our long-term emission reduction activities, as well as our ozone contingency plans, we have identified some additional voluntary actions that we can take immediately to further reduce emissions through the end of this ozone season," the spokesperson said.

Shell has agreed to suspend ongoing completion activities. This includes securing wells and shutting down hydraulic fracturing operations to reduce associated emissions, the QEP spokesperson said. About 70 workers were placed on standby status as a result. QEP and Ultra took similar steps, which are expected to run through at least part of this week.

"The reality, as we all know, is that no one can do this on their own," said QEP spokesperson Emily Kelley, noting the recent ozone alerts occurred across the Upper Green River Basin, of which Pinedale is a part. DEQ is reviewing more data from air monitoring stations. The goal is to "better understand why ozone occurs and how to better control its formation in the winter," Kelley said.

The Pinedale did not exceed the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) standard of 75 parts per million in the last two years, Guille said. "This year, we did again, and we have more (about five) monitors in the area."

Emissions levels of NOx and VOC has decreased since 2008, according to DEQ, while gas production has ramped up 8%. DEQ recorded six ozone advisories in all of 2008, two in 2009 and none last year. The number has already spiked back up to six this year, Guille said. "It usually ends by the end of March, but it depends on the snow cover and other weather conditions."

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