The Best “Airheads” in Utah Work to Solve Utah’s Air Quality Challenges

By Donna Kemp Spangler

MonitorYou don’t have to be an air quality expert to know that Utah’s mountain-and-valley topography creates wintertime inversions and summertime smog. It’s a matter of atmospheric chemistry, meteorology, and source emissions that are a recipe for unhealthy air.

As one air scientist is fond of saying, “What goes out your tailpipe in the morning goes up your nose in the afternoon.”

It sounds simple enough, but it really is much more complicated than that.

On July 28, I traveled with air quality officials and Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Executive Director Alan Matheson to Vernal to learn more about the many air quality research projects now underway, like the one you read about in this Monday’s blog by Seth Arens. The Utah Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), in partnership with Utah State University Bingham Research Center, hosted the second “Air Quality in Utah: Science for Solutions” workshop.

University graduate students, environmental consultants, and DEQ’s own air quality scientists gave presentations on various research projects aimed at a better understanding of the complex scientific conditions that lead to poor air quality on certain days of the year.

Bryce Bird, director of the Division of Air Quality, explains the air quality research program.

Bryce Bird, director of the Division of Air Quality, explains the air quality research program.

This research is happening thanks to the Utah Legislature, which allocated $1 million to fund 14 projects in 2014, with another $200,000 this past session for new projects just gearing up. The Legislature is counting on the best scientific minds in Utah to find causes and solutions to Utah’s unique air quality problems.

Let me be clear: Overall the air quality in Utah is good; it is just on those few days of the year under the right weather conditions when the valley traps the pollution or fouls the air. The research is at the heart of Gov.Herbert’s self-determination approach: “Finding Utah solutions to Utah problems.”

At the workshop, researcher after researcher gave 30-minute presentations on topics that focused either on the Wasatch Front or the Uinta Basin, which experiences the unusual conundrum of wintertime ozone (typically a summer pollution problem).

Sure it was technical stuff, but it also offered a glimpse into the inner workings of the conditions that lead to poor air quality.

Take Seth Lyman of Utah State’s Bingham Research Center presentation Measurement of Carbonyl Emissions from Non-Combustion Oil and Gas Sources.
Carbonyls are critical precursors to formation of ozone during multi-day winter inversions in the Basin, but little is known about their emission sources. Lyman’s study measured carbonyls from oil and gas equipment on well pads over a nine month period, and he found the emissions were generally low.

In simple terms, the well pads do not appear to be important source for the chemical substances that lead to ozone pollution when it comes to carbonyls, but other chemical precursors could show different results (Lyman emphasized more research is needed to confirm these initial findings).

Division of Air Quality scientist Seth Arens describes ongoing research into the contribution of the Great Salt Lake to ozone along the Wasatch Front.

Division of Air Quality scientist Seth Arens
describes ongoing research into the contribution
of the Great Salt Lake to ozone along the Wasatch Front.

Jonathon Wilkey of the University of Utah presented Predicting Emissions from Oil and Gas Operations in the Uinta Basin, which is a mathematical approach using historical data from Utah’s oil and gas regulators and future energy production projects from the federal Energy Information Administration.

His work will form the framework for a model that Utah Division of Air Quality intends to use to estimate future volatile organic compounds (VOC) emissions from oil and gas production in the Basin.

Other projects included the collaborative research of Utah universities under the direction of DEQ’s air scientist Seth Arens to understand how the Great Salt Lake impacts ozone levels along the Wasatch Front, Nancy Daher’s analyses of wood smoke as a contributor to wintertime particulate pollution, and Munkh Baassandorj’s study of VOCs as a precursor pollutant for ozone.

Much of the new research provoked more questions than answers. But questions are an important first step in scientific research. And Utah’s best “airheads” are confident they can find solutions.

As Air Quality Director Bryce Bird likes to say, “We need to find the right control knobs that are effectively achieving the results we want – cleaner air.”

For more information on the air quality research projects, visit our website. And come back to DEQ’s weekly blogs to engage in other important environmental topics.

Environmental ScientistI am the Communications Director for DEQ and a former reporter for the Deseret News. I write a monthly blog post. You can read my previous blog posts here at deq.utah.gov. You can follow me on Twitter.