Several years ago, Utah public health officials realized they had a big problem on their hands – one with national implications as other states were racing to increase oil and gas drilling. Smog levels in the state’s rural Uintah basin were rivaling those found in Los Angeles or Houston on their worst days.
The culprit, an EPA report concluded earlier this year: oil and gas operations. The industry was responsible for roughly 99 percent of the volatile organic compounds found in the basin, which mixed under sunlight with nitrogen oxides – at least 57% of which also came from oil and gas development – to form the choking smog, so thick that the nearby Salt Lake City airport was forced to divert flights when the smog was at its worst.
But the haze over the Uintah isn’t the most dangerous air pollutant coming from the oil and gas fields in the valley.
A string of studies by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show that the core ingredient in natural gas, methane, is leaking at rates far higher than previously suspected. This methane has climate change impacts that, on a pound-for-pound basis, will be far more powerful over the next two decades than the carbon dioxide emissions that have been the focus of most climate change discussions.
The smog problem is especially pronounced in Utah. But a growing body of research nationwide suggests that methane is leaking from the natural gas industry at levels far higher than previously known.
In Washington D.C., pressure is mounting to ignore these methane leaks. The oil and gas industry says there is no time to waste. We must proceed immediately with the “all-of-the-above” national energy strategy they say, code for “drill baby drill”. This pressure is coming not only from the natural gas industry itself, but also from a surprising ally: the Environmental Defense Fund, which has supported natural gas development as a “bridge” from coal to renewables.
This position has drawn renewed accusations that the EDF is “greenwashing” for the natural gas industry.