Editor’s Note: This is the first part of a two-part series produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity.
Mountains sweep up from a landscape of red dirt and brown scrub. Pump jacks nod, pulling oil and gas from the ground. Deer dart toward a river. Trucks swish by, a few at a time, past the Ute Indian reservation.
It’s an unlikely place to find ozone levels that sometimes rival those of smoggy Los Angeles.
Bedeviling communities across the United States, ozone isn’t limited to the urban centers that have struggled for decades to clean up the lung-damaging air pollutant.
Ozone exceeds the federal health standard in smaller cities such as Cincinnati, Ohio, and Middletown, Connecticut. Because the gas, created when nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbon fumes bake in the sun, doesn’t stay put, it’s often worse in suburbs than in car-clogged downtowns. It’s deemed unhealthful in parts of the mountain West, where most people expect the air would be cleanest.
For almost a decade, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s independent science advisory panel has concluded that the nation’s health standard for ozone is too lenient, a view backed by the American Academy of Pediatrics and other health groups.
That means people in a wide swath of the country breathe air that doesn’t violate any rules—and doesn’t trigger any warnings—and yet, according to research, is unhealthy. That’s particularly true for the young, the elderly, and people with lung diseases. As ozone rises, even to levels below the EPA’s 75 parts per billion (ppb) health standard, studies have found increased asthma attacks and respiratory-driven hospital visits. There’s also growing evidence that ozone can affect the heart, increasing the risk of cardiac arrest.
The EPA wanted to tighten its standard for acceptable ozone levels in 2011, but President Barack Obama temporarily blocked it. In November, under court order to act, the EPA proposed setting a new limit within the range of 65 to 70 ppb. A final rule is due by October 1.
“There are millions of Americans who suffer from asthma, or their kids do,” Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, said in an interview. “The American people are entitled to know whether their health is at risk based on the amount of ozone in the air.”
A more rigorous standard could push almost every state out of compliance. The EPA says 358 counties had ozone levels in recent years that would violate a 70-ppb rule, and about two-thirds of them already do not comply with the current standard. At 65 ppb, the number rises to 558 counties.
Ozone-forming pollutants come from a variety of activities that make modern society tick: Car tailpipes. Power plants. Factories. Refineries. Natural gas wells. Paints and other consumer products.
The National Association of Manufacturers says the new ozone health standard would be “the most expensive regulation ever imposed on the American public,” and lead to job cuts and restrictions on factory expansions. An official with the Chamber of Commerce, which represents U.S. businesses, testified in January that it could cause “potentially devastating economic and employment impacts.”
The actual cost of cleaning up ozone over the past few decades has not been thoroughly analyzed, although industry’s predictions of economic devastation have not panned out.
Even so, industry groups and some states contend that the pollutant, reduced substantially since the 1970s, has reached a level that would be difficult and too costly to slash further, particularly in the West.
“We absolutely at this point are urging the EPA and anybody else who will listen to us to keep the current standard,” said Ross Eisenberg, vice president of energy and resources policy at the National Association of Manufacturers. “At a time when … we’re having a manufacturing comeback largely because of energy, this just seems like the wrong way to go.”
McCabe said she expects many communities will meet the standard just by reaping the benefits of already enacted federal rules. A major one is a 2017 change in fuel standards.
In California, officials already have imposed decades of costly smog-fighting regulations that have spurred technologies for vehicles, fuels, factories, and consumer products that will help the rest of the country clean the air.
“My Lungs Would Just Freeze Up”
Daniel M. Dolan-Laughlin has paid close attention to ozone levels ever since chronic obstructive pulmonary disease began making his everyday activities difficult in the 1990s.
“As my lungs got worse, the high ozone would affect them more and more,” said Dolan-Laughlin, a retired railroad executive who lives in a suburb of Chicago.
His disease forced him into early retirement in 1994 and later onto oxygen from a tank. Even with the oxygen, he couldn’t go outside when ozone levels rose. “It would be like going outside on a subzero day,” he said. “My lungs would just freeze up.”
Dolan-Laughlin received a lifesaving double lung transplant in 2011. Now he can walk up stairs without pausing every few steps to gasp. He’s even climbed several mountains. But he still won’t go out on bad ozone days without a mask.
Dolan-Laughlin, who has testified at EPA hearings in favor of a variety of clean-air rules, hopes the agency will tighten the ozone standard. “I’m a strident capitalist,” he says, “but I’m also an environmentalist just out of common sense.”
Dianne LaFaver, who lives in the ozone-challenged Dallas-Fort Worth area, wants a tighter standard, too. Her daughter, Laura Day, 22, has asthma. Before Day left for college, her mother twice had to rush her to the emergency room on high-ozone days.
“She hadn’t been exercising, which was the normal trigger,” LaFaver said. “She hadn’t been stressing herself. We were just in the car … At the emergency room, they were saying they were having lots of visits.”
Alfred Munzer, a lung-disease specialist who retired last year from Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, Maryland, saw 40 years’ worth of patients affected by ozone. There were the asthma attacks—ozone causes spasms in the respiratory tract—and the infections that cropped up a day or two later, he said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has warned that children are more susceptible because their bodies are still developing. A tighter standard, the group said in November, is “long overdue.”
The Cost-Benefit Debate
When the EPA sets its ozone standard, the Clean Air Act mandates that only one factor be weighed: what the best available science shows people can safely breathe.
The EPA says that the value of its proposal outweighs the expense because medical care and missed work days from ozone-triggered health problems add up fast. The agency estimated the benefit of a 65-ppb standard at $19 billion to $38 billion a year beginning in 2025, while the cost of complying would be an estimated $15 billion per year.
Industry trade groups, however, say the cost would be far higher. The National Association of Manufacturers says a 65-ppb standard would cost the country $140 billion a year. The effects, they say, would include fewer jobs, higher electricity costs, and restricted fossil-fuel production.
The Congressional Research Service weighed in last fall to declare the impact too far off to estimate. Rules for reducing ozone-forming gases usually have deadlines that are years, even decades, into the future, and they often spur new, less expensive pollution technology, such as catalytic converters for cars.
“Aside from some statutorily mandated compliance measures, states—not EPA—decide what sources will be regulated and how stringent the controls will be,” the nonpartisan agency said in its issue brief. “Often, industry can choose how to comply.”
No estimate of the actual cost of ozone rules appears to exist, though the EPA worked with economists to put a price tag on the expense of reducing all pollutants covered by the Clean Air Act. Their $22-billion-a-year tally for 1973 to 1990 was less than half the amount the American Petroleum Institute projected in 1979 for the cost of reducing ozone alone.
An Unexpected Smoggy Location
Air-quality field technician Mike Natchees traveled a wide-open stretch of road one drizzly winter morning, past sagebrush, pump jacks, and a gas flare burning like an oversize birthday candle. His destination: a shedlike structure atop an unpaved hill. Inside, devices help measure how much ozone is in the air.
That air is in Ouray, Utah, part of the Ute tribe’s 4.5-million-acre reservation. Cattle and wild horses probably outnumber the cars going by.
The reservation, along with broad swaths of federal land and small towns, makes up the Uinta Basin in northeastern Utah. The mountain-encircled region is far from urban areas. The population in the basin’s largest city, Vernal, barely tops 10,000.
Yet the region has an ozone problem. Not in the summer, but in the dead of winter. Ozone has to be cooked into life by sunlight, which is usually too weak in the winter to produce much photochemistry. But reflection off snow gives the basin’s sunlight an extra kick. Snow cover also causes temperature inversions that keep polluted air from rising.
In such conditions, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from thousands of oil and gas sites drive ozone levels way up. In 2013, a year with stagnant weather conditions that trapped pollutants, the eight-hour average ozone level in Uintah County exceeded the health standard on 54 days. Concentrations spiked as high as 142 ppb, according to EPA data. That’s “code purple,” the worst category for air-pollution warnings. Los Angeles County in California, by contrast, had 59 days that exceeded the standard that year, none of which were deemed code purple.
The problem in the Uinta Basin came to light in 2009, after a settlement between the EPA and an energy company operating on Ute land brought in air monitors, including the one in Ouray. The state kicked in money to study the problem. So did the Western Energy Alliance, federal agencies, and other groups.
What the region needs to do to achieve current or proposed ozone standards is not yet clear.
“Whether it would put the stranglehold on our oil and gas industry and shut it down, or whether just a little bit can make a big difference, are questions that are open still,” said Seth Lyman, a basin ozone researcher who heads Utah State University’s Bingham Entrepreneurship and Energy Research Center.
The studies determined that the oil and gas industry’s VOCs—the hydrocarbon fumes released by wells—are a big contributor to the ozone problem. The basin’s annual emissions are on par with the VOCs spewed from 100 million vehicles driven thousands of miles each, according to a University of Colorado Boulder study.
The state of Utah already has required stricter emission controls at new oil and gas sites and passed regulations to mandate retrofits of older, leaky equipment. “VOC emissions should be reduced pretty dramatically … as things tighten up,” said Brock LeBaron, the state’s deputy director of air quality.
The EPA has yet to designate the area in violation of current ozone rules. (The decision hinges on the fact that much of the data comes from monitors run by companies, not the government.) Under the Clean Air Act, the EPA can freeze federal highway funds and impose other sanctions on areas that exceed health standards. But regions need only to submit plans and take steps toward achieving goals.
Oil and Gas a Major Source in Rural Utah
A few weeks ago, Jeremy Nichols drove from Vernal to a wildlife refuge in Randlett, pointing out pump jacks and the tanker trucks that continually travel to and from the basin.
“It’s dangerous, the scale and pace of development,” said Nichols, climate and energy program director for the environmental group WildEarth Guardians. “You’re seeing that with the air-quality issues. I mean, Vernal has a big-city ozone problem?”
Nearly nine in ten Utah residents view air pollution as a “serious problem,” according to a Colorado College poll released in February. But that’s driven by concerns in the Salt Lake City area. In Vernal, three hours east, the local sentiment is summed up by a miniature rig and a sign that an owner of a juice bar put up: “I (heart) Drilling!”
Oil and gas is the county’s biggest employer, according to state data. The industry directly accounts for about one-fifth of the jobs, and Uintah County Commission Chairman Michael McKee says it rises to half if you add in the ripple effect.
“You take any community, state, or region with those dynamics, it’s important that we protect our jobs,” he said. “It’s also important that we have clean air and clean water and a good environment.”
Still, McKee sees a tighter ozone standard from the perspective of a job threat, one that looms as the region heads into an oil bust. Plunging prices prompted layoffs here and the fear of more.
This winter, ozone has been quiescent. Warm temperatures have kept snow from piling up, warding off an inversion.
But the emissions are still there. Stephanie Howard and Megan Crandall, both with the federal Bureau of Land Management in Utah, drove through the Pariette Wetlands area on a recent afternoon, explaining that the agency is eliminating evaporation ponds and making other changes to improve conditions.
At the same time, the bureau is reviewing whether to allow more than 8,500 additional oil and gas wells in the region, double the number now under its jurisdiction. Leonard Herr, an air-resources specialist for the Bureau of Land Management in Utah, knows that poses a tough question: Can total emissions be reined even as sources multiply?
He’s optimistic that they can be, and he doesn’t view a tighter ozone standard as a looming economic disaster for the basin.
“Nonattainment and failure to meet the standards after that isn’t the end of the world,” he said. “Just look at L.A. It’s been nonattainment almost my whole adult life, and it’s not a barren wasteland of economic development.”
Maryam Jameel and Alexander Cohen of the Center for Public Integrity contributed to this article.