Scientists launch crowdfunding effort to study winter ozone formation in Utah’s fracking patch

Signs of oil and gas development are visible on a landscape level from 35,000 feet in the air.

Signs of oil and gas development in eastern Utah  are visible on a landscape level from 35,000 feet in the air.

Snow may intensify the air quality impacts of energy development

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — A team of American and Canadian scientists want to unravel some of the secrets of winter ozone formation related to oil and gas drilling — and they need your help.

University of Washington atmospheric researcher Becky Alexander, who is leading the January research project in Utah’s Uintah Basin has launched a crowdfunding campaign to help finance the field work. The team wants to raise $12,ooo in the next three weeks via their project website at

“It’s a global outreach effort,” Alexander said, explaining that crowdfunding for scientific research is a new and growing movement. Grassroots funding helps eliminate some of the administrative overhead costs sometimes associated with traditional sources of money. Sometimes, as much as 50 to 60 percent of federal funding ends up going toward overhead, she explained.

Regions of natural gas fracking in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming often experience high levels of ground-level ozone, which can have severe impacts on respiratory health. In the winter, ground-level ozone concentrations in Utah’s Uintah Basin frequently get up to levels twice that of federal limits set by the EPA.

Normally, ozone formation is associated with hot sunny days and emissions of volatile organic compounds, but recent research has shown that snow also plays a key role in ozone formation.

It turns out that snow, in all its “pristine” glory, may be a powerful generator of highly reactive chemicals that contribute to persistent high levels of ozone — especially when cold air gets trapped near the ground by atmospheric inversions.

A chemical reaction at the surface of the snow recycles nitrogen oxides back into the atmosphere in a form that’s particularly conducive to ozone formation, Alexander said. The process creates a distinct chemical fingerprint that the research team wants to track. The effort should help design more effective pollution control strategies in places like the Uintah Basin.

Current efforts, including proposed new regulations in Colorado, focus on reducing VOC emissions, but that is probably not the most effective way to tackle ozone formation — at least when there’s snow on the ground and nitrogen oxides are bigger factor.

The research is crucial to improving winter air quality across oil and gas producing regions in remote locations in Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado, where extremely high levels of ozone have recently been measured in recent years.

These areas all have something in common – they have high density natural gas mining that use the technique hydraulic fracturing. Air pollution from natural gas fracking is a growing problem. The recycling of nitrogen oxide pollutants by snow may limit the effectiveness of controls on their emissions from the fracking industry.

Donate to the research effort here.


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