Oil and gas emissions in Utah a threat to public health, report says

Pollutants released into the atmosphere with excess natural gas create smog and endanger public health, especially in Duschesne and Uintah counties.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Pumpjacks dip their heads to extract oil in a basin south of Duchesne on Thursday, July 13, 2023. A new report released on Friday says that pollution from the oil and gas industry in Utah exacerbates air quality concerns, especially in Uintah and Duchesne counties, which are home to 85% of the state's oil and gas wells.

When natural gas producers waste gas and emit methane in Utah, it’s not only the economy that suffers, according to a report. Air quality, public health and the environment lose out, too.

“It’s not just methane,” Ashley Miller, executive director of Breathe Utah, told The Salt Lake Tribune. “It’s other hazardous air pollutants that we really care about for public health. When you have a real serious air quality problem in these areas, there’s people living in these areas, and we want to protect human health as much as we can.”

In 2016, the report says, air pollution from the oil and gas industry led to eight deaths per million, as well as 1,040 asthma exacerbations per million among children.

Oil and gas production sites emit what are called volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, according to the report, when companies release natural gas into the atmosphere through flaring, venting and leaking.

Volatile organic compounds create ground-level ozone, better known as smog, which is a major public health concern in Utah. The report notes that volatile organic compounds in smog can worsen respiratory conditions, like asthma, and even cause heart disease. Also, benzene, another pollutant released during oil and gas production, has been proven to cause cancer.

The report was published by Synapse Energy Economics, Inc., a research and consulting firm; the Environmental Defense Fund, a nonprofit focused on finding solutions to environmental pollution; and Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group that advocates for the responsible use of taxpayer dollars.

The report states that Utah’s fossil fuel producers released 16 billion cubic feet of natural gas in 2019, and 87% was lost from wells leaking natural gas due to faulty equipment.

Duschesne and Uintah counties — where 85% of oil and gas wells are concentrated in the state — received F grades from the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report this year. Those two counties cover the Uinta Basin, where the Uintah and Ouray Indian Reservation is also located.

“We really understand the importance and value of the fossil fuel industry in Utah, especially to those communities where it’s really the only source of revenue and jobs,” Miller said.

Petroleum production in the Uinta Basin isn’t slowing down. The oil industry is booming in Duschesne and Uintah counties, and statewide oil and gas employment grew by 16% between 2021 and 2022.

Emissions from oil and gas production also have concerning environmental impacts. Oil and gas production is a large emitter of methane, a greenhouse gas more powerful than carbon dioxide, which is the largest component of natural gas.

The Environmental Protection Agency has issued a proposal to reduce methane emissions by ensuring that wells are checked frequently for leaks using monitoring equipment. The proposal would also require companies to continue monitoring wells for emissions until they are plugged after production.