There is an eye in the sky above U.S. shale oil and natural gas basins.
Well, more like a nose.
Through April, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration will be flying above the basins from North Dakota to Texas collecting air samples to document if drilling is adding to ground-level ozone, said Joost de Gouw, a research scientist at NOAA’s Earth Systems Research Lab in Boulder, Colorado.
“We do that with a focus on air quality,” said de Gouw, also a senior scientist and fellow at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “What are the reactive trace gases that are being released? How much methane is released from these activities?”
Breathing ozone triggers a variety of health problems for children, the elderly and anyone with lung diseases such as asthma. It’s produced when sunlight mixes with nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. Gasoline vapors, emissions from factories and electric utilities, motor vehicle exhaust and chemical solvents are some of the major sources of the pollutants that lead to ozone creation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
“Ground-level ozone can also have harmful effects on sensitive vegetation and ecosystems,” according to the agency’s website.
In addition to nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, de Gouw said, the researchers will be looking for methane specific to oil and gas industries. Methane has a lot of different sources, including coal, landfills and animals, but the instruments can distinguish among them.
While outbreaks of ground-level ozone usually happen in the summer, areas of Wyoming and Utah have had incidents in winter corresponding to the time when hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, operations there intensified, de Gouw said.
“It’s very specific to these two basins and we have only known about it for the last five or six years,” he said.
In addition, summer ozone levels in Colorado, which have existed for decades, had been getting better, de Gouw said in an interview last week. In recent years, that trend has reversed.
“Do these emissions play a role?” said de Gouw. “We don’t know the answer.”
Colorado regulators last month approved rules aimed at fixing leaks from tanks and piles at oil and natural gas operations. North Dakota passed rules effective Oct. 1 to reduce the amount of gas flared at wellheads.
The industry has disputed its role in the formation of ground-level ozone.
“Publicly available information demonstrates that oil and gas production is not a significant contributor to ozone levels,” said Steve Everley, team leader for Energy in Depth, a research and education program of the Independent Petroleum Association of America.
In the San Antonio and Dallas-Fort Worth areas, cars and trucks add much more volatile organic compounds to the atmosphere than oil and gas production, said Everley, who’s based in Dallas. Nitrogen oxide releases are in the “single digit percentages in the total area.”
Flying 14 to 21 hours a week, the Orion, with a crew of six researchers and nine crew members, will crisscross the shale oil and fracking sites in the western and central U.S. The data gathered will require about 18 months to process.
De Gouw said while results may be clear immediately, it will take months to make sure the data is good and even longer to do a proper analysis.