By Whitney Oswald
The Utah Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ’s) Division of Air Quality (DAQ) believes sound science leads to good decisions and effective regulations. That’s why we conduct research on complex air-quality issues — to identify causes and find solutions.
For example, we’ve seen an increase in winter ozone levels in the Uinta Basin in recent years, and that increase appears to be tied to the growth in oil-and-gas operations in the region. We know oil-and-gas facilities emit ozone precursors like volatile organic compounds (VOCs), but we want to target the sources of these precursors using the right tools.
Our research shows that using an infrared (IR) camera to find equipment leaks can help reduce the fugitive VOC emissions that contribute to the formation of ozone, and that’s the idea behind the new ULend program. By loaning a state-of-the-art IR camera to operators — particularly small oil-and-gas producers who might not be able to afford the kind of expensive equipment that could help them identify and repair VOC leaks early — ULend can help reduce emissions, reduce costs, and improve compliance.
VOC Leaks at Oil and Gas Operations
In 2016, the Division of Air Quality (DAQ) received legislative funding for the Storage Tank Emissions Pilot Project (STEPP), a collaborative program that used an infrared (IR) camera to check for leaks in oil and gas tanks in the Uinta Basin. The research showed that almost 40 percent of the more than 400 well pads visited had some type of VOC leak. While these leaks are not the only source of VOC emissions in the Basin, they may make a significant contribution to elevated ozone levels during winter inversions.
Based on these research findings, the 2017 Utah Legislature appropriated $200,000 in air-quality research money to fund the ULend program, providing oil-and-gas operators with a practical way to reduce VOC leaks at their facilities.
ULend Program Benefits
Product leaks at oil-and-gas facilities can be difficult to detect. IR cameras offer a proven technology for locating hard-to-find leaks, but the cameras can be prohibitively expensive for small operators. Under the program, companies can get certified in optical gas-imaging (OGI) and borrow an IR camera. The program benefits operators in a number of ways:
- While many leaks at oil and gas operations are relatively easy to repair, they can be difficult to see. An IR camera helps operators locate fugitive VOC emissions that are not normally visible to the naked eye.
- Operators can inspect their own sites with an IR camera to identify and repair leaks. This proactive approach minimizes leaks that have the potential to become a compliance issue.
- DAQ will be able to use the information provided by program participants to increase its understanding of the source(s) and frequency of leaks. Repair data will help ensure that DEQ regulations target fugitive VOC emissions in an appropriate, cost-effective manner.
The ULend program alleviates much of the cost burden associated with leak-detection programs. Companies can forego the purchase of a $100,000 IR camera as well as the added cost of hiring a camera contractor (about $7,000/week) since ULend will provide training in the camera’s use to program participants.
Operators utilizing the borrowed cameras will be asked to share some simple data — basic facility information, date of site visit, specific leak location, how the leak was addressed, and associatedcosts — with DAQ. These data will be used solely for research purposes, not compliance actions.
Collaborative Effort, Positive Outcomes
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, the Bingham Research Center, and the Tri-County Health Department for this project, with additional support from the Utah Clean Air Partnership (UCAIR).
This partnership will yield some important benefits to operators:
- Industry will save money by reducing the amount of saleable product lost from equipment leaks.
- Increases in compliance will decrease costs for industry and DAQ’s air–quality compliance program.
- Data collected through the program will help DAQ craft targeted regulations that are effective at reducing VOC emissions without applying an undue or unnecessary burden on the oil and gas industry.
These kinds of cooperative efforts help us develop innovative and effective ways to reduce the area’s VOC emissions. Fewer emissions mean lower ozone levels and better air quality for Basin residents at a lower cost to operators. And those are outcomes we can all get behind.
Want to learn more about the ULend program? Visit us at ulend.utah.gov! If you’re interested in participating in the Ulend program, sign up on our website to be added to our contact list. We will be in touch with you when the program begins this fall.
I am an environmental scientist with the Technical Analysis section at DAQ. I have a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Utah State University and a master’s degree in environmental science from the University of Utah. When not working, I love traveling and spending time outdoors with my husband and two dogs.