Monday, October 3, 2016

Air Quality STEPPs up Efforts to Locate Leaks

By Whitney Oswald

Imagine trying to find “invisible” leaks in an oil and gas storage tank. Then try finding these leaks in hundreds of storage tanks scattered across a large, remote area. You know the culprit, and you know these leaks are a significant source of volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from oil and gas operations in the area. Research shows that these VOCs react with other chemicals in the atmosphere to form ozone, a pollutant occurring at high levels in the region during winter inversions. Finding the leaks is a monumental, but important, task in the effort to reduce the VOCs that contribute to the area’s winter ozone problem. What do you do?

If you’re the Division of Air Quality (DAQ), Bingham Research Center, and the Tri-County Health Department, you take on this challenge and use a $150,000 appropriation from the Utah Legislature to launch a pilot program: the Storage Tank Emissions Pilot Project (STEPP). Using state-of-the-art technology, DAQ scientists are working with the Bingham Center and Tri-County Health to track down leaks in storage tanks at oil and gas wells in the Uinta Basin so operators can repair them.

Approximately 11,400 of the state’s producing and shut-in oil and gas wells are located in the Basin. The large number of wells and the unique air quality problems linked to VOC emissions in the area make it an ideal location to analyze the contribution of fugitive tank emissions. These emissions are aptly named, because they usually leak through a “thief hatch,” a pressure-control device on oil and gas condensate tanks.

Since it would be impractical to visit every one of the 2,350 wells that fall under state air quality regulations, DAQ has worked with oil and gas producers and stakeholders to identify a representative sample of 474 wells that currently have VOC combustors (and thief hatches) on their tanks.

DAQ has assembled a powerful collection of tools and techniques to help detect these leaks:

  • Infrared (IR) cameras: Tuned into the infrared wavelengths absorbed by gases like methane, IR cameras allow the user to “see” plumes of gas that are invisible to the naked eye. These cameras, which provide real-time thermal images of gas emissions, help researchers observe and record leaks.
  • Tablet-based Geographic Information System (GIS) equipment: The Uinta Basin region is very remote, so careful trip planning and prior confirmation that sites are accessible are important for the efficient use of staff time and resources. GIS software lets researchers plan the most efficient route for daily site visits and ensures that the sites are reasonably accessible via the local network of roads. GIS overlays of the local roads with the oil and gas well locations help refine the site-selection process.
  • Google High-Resolution Imagery: This tool allows researchers to zoom into each of the potential well sites to verify that the sites selected are good candidates for leak detection. The high-res imagery shows whether there are tanks located at the site, the number of tanks, and a rough idea of the well status (abandoned, remote, isolated, etc.)
These tools let researchers plan their site visits with greater precision. The tablet-based GIS application developed by DAQ helps Bingham Center staff navigate the jurisdictionally complex and remote Uinta Basin using real-time GPS-based navigation. Scientists can plan their trips and explore sites using high-resolution imagery before traveling to the site. The tablet-based app also organizes IR video and field notes, creating a database that can be used to analyze the information collected during the site visits.

One of the most important aspects of the STEPP project is the development of a collaborative working relationship between DAQ and the oil and gas companies in the Basin. The STEPP project isn’t about enforcement, it’s about finding solutions. The inclusion of oil and gas producers in the process offers simple benefits, such as access to gated facilities and informal education opportunities to raise operator awareness about leaks in storage tanks. But most importantly, this collaboration facilitates the kinds of cooperative efforts needed to develop innovative and effective ways to reduce the area’s VOC emissions.

The Bingham Center has completed inspections of approximately half of the well sites. DAQ believes that this organized, methodical approach will provide the Division with more definitive information about VOC emissions from storage tanks, improve DAQ emissions estimates in the Basin, and help operators fix leaky storage tanks by providing precise observations that identify VOC sources.

The STEPP program is just one of many air quality research projects underway at the Division of Air Quality. To learn more our research activities in the Uinta Basin and along the Wasatch Front, check out our air quality research website.

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.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Idling Gets Us Nowhere Fast!

By Tammie Bostick Cooper, Guest Blogger

DEQ invites guest bloggers to share their thoughts on issues that impact our environment. We appreciate their insights and the opportunity to broaden the conversation with others in the community

Students at Jefferson Junior High School
  decorate Idle-Free signs to remind everybody
that their school is an Idle-Free Zone
Ten years ago, my niece came to my mountain home and announced her class was campaigning to stop the dirty, old school buses from idling at her Morningside Elementary School. She talked expertly about carbon footprints, asthma, and PM 2.5. I was getting my first education on the dire effects of idling from a nine- year-old activist! Over the last year, I would say I have become an Idle-Free activist, too. My college kids call me the Idle-Free Fairy, passing out Idle-Free stickers and knocking on idling car windows and asking, reminding, and sometimes retreating from annoyed drivers.

There is almost no reason to idle while parking (there are exceptions). Each year, Americans burn over 6 million gallons of gas going nowhere — they are simply idling. Estimates in Utah say that one-quarter of our emissions are a result of idling. If you can see something coming out of the tail pipe, it’s particulate matter and it’s dangerous, especially to developing lungs and vulnerable populations.PM2.5, the tiny particles you can’t often see, lodge in the lungs and cross the blood barrier.

This month marks the ninth annual Idle-Free in Utah Declaration, signed by the governor and a record 50 Utah Mayors. This is historic, and it shows that Utah leaders do care about Utah’s air. It is plain to see that the simple campaign started by Utah Clean Cities ten years ago is sensible and improves bad air by helping individuals make the choice to turn off their vehicles after ten seconds of parking. Utah school bus drivers have been trained in Idle Free and have a 100 percent Idle-Free busing policy. This year, two major school districts, Granite and Canyons, have declared their campuses 100 percent Idle Free. 

Utah Clean Cities works to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and conservation is one of the key educational tools we recommend for reducing consumption through driver awareness.  We encourage the 10-second rule when parked, especially at our schools. School become hot spots for pollution, where students and teachers literally come face to face with toxic emissions outside and inside their schools.

Students remind us all to Turn the Key, Be Idle Free
Our current work with the University of Utah, Salt Lake County Health, and a group of pilot schools will soon be getting accurate measurements of the air-pollution levels inside and outside Wasatch Front schools. We have to have a base measurement to begin our real work on improving our air. 

Science classes will scientifically collect, measure and decipher data. They will become critical thinkers and informed citizenry. The young people I speak with desperately want to be engaged and do something to save their world.  And they can.

The call to stop idling is urgent and everyone can do it.  Turn your own key and be Idle Free. Visit our website to see what your can do at your school to support Idle Free.

I am the Northern Coordinator for Utah Clean Cities, promoting alternative vehicles and clean air strategies like Idle Free. I believe there has never been a more compelling time to be involved with transportation and to answer the urgent call to change our dependence on imported fossil fuels. There are no perfect fuels, but there are practical solutions leading to them. 

I grew up ranching and close to nature. I graduated from the University of Utah and worked with children on the Ute Indian Reservation. I raised two bright children in a small, off-the-grid cabin in the high Uintas. They all live in Salt Lake.  Alexia and Cole attend Westminster College, where they continue to reflect on their childhood.