By Jared Mendenhall
The Uinta Basin drew little interest from European settlers when they reached the Great Basin. In fact, the Deseret News reported that the basin was a “vast contiguity of waste…valueless excepting for nomadic purposes, hunting grounds for Indians and to hold the world together.”
This all changed in 1948 when oil was discovered in the basin. Since then, the economy of the area has been increasingly tied to the boom-and-bust cycle of the oil industry. Along with the good jobs and business opportunities in the oil fields there was an environmental snag—ozone.
Ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx) interact with sunlight. In the Uinta Basin, the source of these VOCs is primarily from emissions produced during oil and gas extraction.
“Ozone is a powerful oxidant that can impact the tissue in the lungs. It causes the tissue to constrict, traps air in the lungs, and makes it hard to breathe,” explains Jordan Mathis, Health Director for TriCounty Health Department.
In 2016, The Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Air Quality (DAQ) conducted a study to better understand the sources of VOCs in the basin. Using an infrared (IR) camera, DAQ checked for leaks in oil and gas tanks. This study showed that almost 40 percent of the more than 400 well pads visited had some type of VOC leak.
Based on DAQ’s findings, the 2017 Utah Legislature set aside $200,000 to fund the ULend program. ULend offers small-to-medium sized oil and gas producers with access to an IR camera at no cost. The camera is used to check for leaks at well pads—part of an industry tactic known as leak detection and repair (LDAR).
“We use Infrared cameras to determine if we have leaks—where the hydrocarbons we would normally recovery and sell are leaking out into the atmosphere,” says Randy Hughes with XTO Energy Inc., a company specializing in the drilling and production of oil and natural gas. “Part of that, too, is just to be friendly to the environment. That’s a big part of it too. The less stuff that we have leaking out in to the atmosphere, the better it is for the environment. So, it’s kind of a two-fold process.”
Fugitive emissions from oil and gas producers aren’t just an environmental problem. Leaks at well sites also create hazardous conditions for the workers. When operators incorporate an LDAR program, including the use of IR cameras, they are able frequently survey their facilities, identify safety and health issues, and repair the problems quickly.
“Using an IR camera, you will probably identify some trends. Even if you only survey for a week or two weeks,” says Doug Jordan with Newfield Exploration, a petroleum, natural gas, and natural gas liquids exploration and production company organized headquartered in Houston, TX. “You will be able to identify either major equipment that is prone to leaks or specific components, such as connectors. Then you can take that information back to your pumpers. When they’re out at their sites doing AVO, they can spend some extra time at those areas where you found the leaks.”
It’s difficult, however, for some small operators to justify the cost of an LDAR program. The equipment is expensive; an IR camera can run $100,00. ULend allows companies to forego the purchase of an IR camera.
“A huge benefit of the ULend program is the front-end cost. The cameras cost $85,000-$125,000, depending on the make/model type that you get,” says Hughes. “That’s a huge front-end cost for the little guy to get into.”
Operators using the borrowed cameras will be asked to share a minimal amount of the data they collect — basic facility information, date of site visit, specific leak location, how the leak was addressed, and associated costs — with DAQ. These data will be used solely for research purposes, not compliance actions.
The ULend program is a great example of what can be accomplished when industry and government work together. DAQ has partnered with Utah State University, Bingham Research Center, and TriCounty Health for this project, with additional support from the Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR).
To learn more about ULend or to check out the camera, visit: ulend.utah.gov.