4 The record articles

Happening Now: Air Quality Study by Aircraft Over Oil and Gas Production Areas

Posted: April 14th, 2015

Author: All4 Staff 

Beginning the week of March 22, 2015, an aircraft carrying a suite of meteorological and ambient monitoring instruments began a field campaign aimed at studying the air over oil and gas production areas.  The study, named the Shale Oil and Natural Gas Nexus (SONGNEX), is led by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES).  It focuses on evaluating the impacts of emissions from oil and gas production sites on climate, air quality, and public health.

NOAA’s WP-3D Orion research aircraft is taking air samples over a variety of different tight oil and gas basins, focusing on the western United States.  Flights are occurring over the following basins: Bakken, North Dakota; Upper Green River Valley, Wyoming; Uintah basin, Utah; Denver-Julesburg basin, Colorado; Haynesville shale, Texas; and Eagle Ford, Texas.  SONGNEX will consider flights over the Marcellus, Pennsylvania region if time permits.

The study aims at collecting data to quantify emissions over the different oil and gas sites, as well as study the chemical transformation of these emissions in the atmosphere.  The first main area of study, climate, will focus on understanding the effects of oil and gas production from the radiative forcing agents of methane and black aerosol carbon.  Methane, a greenhouse gas and a main component of natural gas, is released into the atmosphere from equipment leaks, and the amount of emissions vary depending on different stages of production.  The SONGNEX fly-over study will measure the methane emissions from the different basins using the same methodology to gain a better understanding of these amounts.  Black carbon aerosols are emitted from natural gas flaring, and have recently been found to be an important anthropogenic emission in terms of climate forcing.

The second main area of study, air quality, will analyze the formation of ozone and fine particulate matter from emissions of methane, non-methane hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides over oil and gas production areas.  Previous studies have shown enhancements of methane, non-methane hydrocarbons, and nitrogen oxides emissions over oil and gas basins, as well as elevated levels of ozone.  Modeling of oil and gas production areas has also shown increasing ozone concentrations over shale regions.  The data collected during SONGNEX will be used to quantify the precursor emissions and to analyze the springtime chemical transformation of the pollutants into ozone and fine particulate matter.

The last main area of study is air toxics.  Oil and gas production may potentially release multiple air toxic compounds into the atmosphere.  SONGNEX will quantify concentrations of hydrogen sulfide and benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylenes (BTEX compounds) over oil and gas production sites.  The study will evaluate the mixing ratio and fraction of emissions at different stages of oil and gas production.

The SONGNEX fly-overs are happening now through May 2015, and are sure to collect some novel data relating to emissions over oil and gas production basins in the western United States.  The analyses of the data will likely contribute to future regulations by the U.S. EPA regarding oil and gas production.  It will be interesting to see how the climate conclusions affect greenhouse gas regulations and how the air quality study could influence ambient monitoring for criteria pollutants around oil and gas operations.  The focus on ambient concentrations of oil and gas production emissions is similar to the proposed benzene fenceline monitoring requirements of 40 CFR Part 60, Subpart CC and UUU.  The air toxics evaluation could provide a hint to future U.S. EPA regulation of emissions associated with oil and gas production.

Have you seen NOAA’s research aircraft flying over your facility?  Leave a comment below to let us know!  ALL4 will be keeping an eye on the studies that emerge from the SONGNEX campaign and how they shape future regulatory action.


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