27 September 2016
Dr. Jim Roberts of CSD receives the Gold Medal for Leadership from the Department of Commerce. This prestigious award is the highest given by the Department of Commerce and reflects an extraordinary or notable contribution.
Jim led the Uintah Basin Winter Ozone Study in 2012, 2013, and 2014. High levels of wintertime ozone were an unexplained and vexing problem in the Uintah Basin, and threatened non-compliance with the US Clean Air Act. While high levels of surface ozone are a common occurrence in the summer, especially in cities, they are totally unexpected during winter because of colder temperatures and lower sunlight. But in Uintah Basin, home to considerable development of oil and gas deposits, it is precisely winter when the highest ozone levels are encountered. Both Utah air quality managers and industry leaders were concerned about ozone levels, but lacked the scientific expertise to determine the causes and potential remedies.
Jim executed timely and systematic research in the field that determined the chemical and meteorological causes of the ozone problem, and made recommendations about possible solutions. The observations pointed to a mixture of high levels of oxygenated volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and meteorological factors that were necessary for winter ozone production to occur. Furthermore, his research showed that the previous models used to simulate atmospheric chemistry were incorrect (Ahmadov et al., 2015).
Since the meteorological conditions did not produce the necessary sampling conditions the first winter, Jim was able to maintain the partnership of stakeholders and scientists for the next two winters and record additional measurements which were the key to unraveling the problem. Jim showed incredible leadership in bringing together oil and gas industry members and air quality managers, and proved that competing interests can work together to solve air quality problems with a win-win outcome.
Jim's hard work helped the state of Utah formulate regulations to improve air quality and showed that rapid response is possible to addressing air quality problems. This unusual atmospheric chemistry is now fully understood and can be applied to other air quality problems. An innovation emerged from the interpretation of the NOAA measurements – a detailed 'master chemical mechanism' that described how oxygenated VOCs were initiating the wintertime ozone chemistry. The mechanism was published in the journal Nature (Edwards et al., 2014), the world's premier science journal.
Jim received this well-deserved recognition at the award ceremony on September 27 in Washington, DC.