The Uintah Basin’s tricky oil and gas ozone problem

This web exclusive appeared on Nov. 4, 2014:

On a crisp fall day lined with cottonwoods yellow-bright as balls of flame, I take a gravel shortcut from Utah’s Nine Mile Canyon toward Vernal, an energy boomtown of some 10,000 souls. Though I’ve spent the day looking at natural gas wells going in along the fingers of the plateau that cradles Nine Mile’s storied rock art, I’m surprised by what I encounter shortly after hitting asphalt, popping up around each curve in time to Phil Collins crooning a Supremes cover on the radio: Pumpjacks. Everywhere.

You can’t hurry love
No you’ll just have to wait

Two tall as buildings nod up on the right.

She said love don’t come easy
It’s a game of give and take

Two more nod down the left. Then another two.

How long must I wait
How much more must I take

A prickling of several more on the mesa tops, and then

Before loneliness
Will cause my heart, heart to break?

the broad dome of dry-grass desert opens up to reveal a vista that is anything but lonely: Densely spaced oil wells and clustered tanks spread to the horizons. When I pull over and climb onto the shoulder, I can feel a vibration deep in my chest – hundreds of pumpjack engines rattling with flatulent backfires like impolite party guests.

If it were a cold, still day with snow carpeting the ground, there would likely be a lungful of nasty air to accompany this chorus, and a much hazier view. More…