Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Fracking’s Link to Smog Worries Some Texas Cities

Flaring gas at well site in DeWitt County

In South Texas, state environmental regulators are using helicopters equipped with infrared cameras to sweep across gas and oil well sites. They’re looking for toxic vapor leaks that otherwise would be invisible. The leaks are from open hatches or bad valves on tanks and pipes. But what the state is finding—and not finding—is part of the debate over whether fracking threatens to dirty the air in Texas towns where drilling is surging.

“We are being proactive in trying to look at and address these issues,” says David Brymer, director of air quality with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

A TCEQ video shows fugitive emissions at a drilling site in the Eagle Ford Shale of South Texas.

Fracking and Smog

The fear is that the enormous increase in oil and gas well drilling, largely related to the technique called hydraulic fracturing or fracking, is releasing sizable amounts of gases. Among them, methane and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) like benzene. The federal government is convinced it’s a big deal.

“The oil and gas industry is a significant source of VOCs, which contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone (smog),” said the EPA in announcing new rules for drilling issued this April. The EPA said methane—what natural gas is made of—is a highly potent greenhouse gas. The agency blames oil and gas production and processing for “nearly 40% of all U.S. methane emissions.”

The EPA says of particular concern is “flowback,” one stage of drilling a well when a mix of natural gas and VOCs come to the surface “at high velocity and volume” for three to 10 days, according to the EPA.

San Antonio on Edge

It’s partly why San Antonio is worried. The city sits just north (and often downwind) of Karnes County, now the state’s number one producer of crude oil. It’s part of the Eagle Ford Shale, the underground rock formation that holds oil and gas that’s newly accessible using fracking. The area leads the state in new drilling permits and completed wells according to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates drilling.

“We’re at the early stages of growth of the Eagle Ford,” says Peter Bella, natural resources director for the Alamo Council of Governments.

“That’s why we want to try and understand it the best we can and get ahead of the curve and not be playing catch-up,” Bella told StateImpact.

Because it’s not just the air pollution from the wells. Bella says a more immediate concern is all the exhaust from the diesel engines in the thousands of trucks, generators and compressors used to service the well sites. That could push San Antonio over the edge.

Dave Fehilng/StateImpact

Tanker truck on ranch road near Cuero, Texas

“Right now, the San Antonio region is the largest city in the United States that is in full compliance with all air quality laws. I have to say in the same breath, we are right on the cusp of violating the ozone standard,” said Bella.

The industry has responded, partly through the Texas Railroad Commission. Commissioner David Porter is behind the Eagle Ford Task Force to work with drilling companies to target pollution sources, including an upshot in the number of flares used to burn off natural gas. Porter’s staff told StateImpact he was too busy for an interview.

North v. South…Texas

The oil and gas industry has run into far more opposition to its emissions in North Texas, home to the Barnett Shale. And to a lot more people. And pollution.

“It’s just adding to an existing problem,” said Lon Burnam, a Democratic state representative from Forth Worth who serves on the House Environmental Regulation Committee.

“Those of us in North Texas (have been) in non-attainment for so many years. We absolutely recognize the huge impact this is having, the negative impact on our air quality,” said Burnam.

“Chesapeake has put a gas well 537 feet from my back yard,” testified Rosemary Reed at a hearing held by the EPA last fall in Arlington. “And also flared that well,” Reed said of giant drilling company Chesapeake Energy.

Unlike in South Texas where much of the drilling is taking place in open ranges where the nearest home can be miles away, drilling in more densely-populated North Texas gets treated like a neighborhood nuisance, with city councils passing extensive ordinances requiring buffer zones between well sites and homes. Fort Worth mandates that drilling companies take steps to reduce air emissions.

‘Health Studies Haven’t Found Anything’

The drilling industry largely disputes any threat to health from the vapors the fracking unleashes. And so do Texas regulators. At least, for now.

“Lot of monitoring out there (in the Barnett Shale), lots of studies commissioned—done by us and other people—health studies, and they really haven’t found anything,” said the TCEQ’s Brymer.

Brymer said state investigators found that there’s nothing inherently wrong with the fracking process in terms of toxic emissions. Instead, he said most leaks were caused by workers not following procedures, for example, leaving a hatch door open on a tank.

“If it’s closed, it works the way it’s supposed to. If left open, you have increased emissions.”

Brymer also said that in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, air monitors the TCEQ has in San Antonio are not showing any significant changes in ozone.

So no clear cut connection between all that drilling and the ozone levels?

“We haven’t seen anything yet,” said Brymer.

Comments

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Kim-Triolo-Feil/1320864445 Kim Triolo Feil

    “Lot of monitoring out there (in the Barnett Shale), lots of studies commissioned—done by us and other people—health studies, and they really haven’t found anything,” said the TCEQ’s Brymer.   OH NO YOU DON’T Brymer….you need to say that the $1 million Ft Worth air study concentrated on post production emission numbers as did the TCEQ Phase II Emission Equiment Inventory study.  The Colleyville Titan air studies found 6-9 times the ATSDR MCL exceedance for Benzene during flowback…so our dry gas does have dangerous VOCs…a 21 yr old Colorado flowback worker’s autopsy came back as hydro carbon poisoning-his name was Dustin Bergsing. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kpzt456ptDo

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_V5YJDYWVI3DPWEECVKXEAEPI4U Younis Mourabi

    Good to see the enviro-freaks are hard at work driving up the cost of energy for the rest of the USA.  Someone should run a study on these folks.  Why do the men and women supporting the enviro-freak agenda look EXACTLY the same?  Perhaps it’s testicular under-development caused by too much soy protein.

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/47IDX2QAR6VU6ZAILFU6I23ACQ Joseph

      I’ll bet you’d be singing a different tune if there was one of these gas well abominations in your neighborhood, Younis.  You’d love the smell, the noise… oh, and the seismic tremors, which we never had in North Texas before these greedy bastards started drilling here.  Can’t wait till the health problems start kicking in.  But you keep driving that Hummer, and pretend it’s all some enviro-freak conspiracy. 

    • Mike

      The costs of dirty energy are HIGHER than renewable energy; the costs are just externalized to society.  The environmental, human health, and quality of life price tags  of fossil fuel are real and simply too high.  The good news is that we have alternatives in sustainable energy technology available today.  We just have to change the mindset like those of Younis that somehow believe that it is manly to pollute.

    • Glover

      It’s a good thing for you Younis that the government and the private sector is as short sided as you are, putting greed far before the health of the earth and it’s people.  It’s embarrassing how you criticize the people who actually do give a crap and by the way people who refute science are usually not intelligent.

  • Lisa Wright

    Prior comment: “Good to see the enviro-freaks are hard at work driving up the cost of energy for the rest of the USA. Someone should run a study on these folks. Why do the men and women supporting the enviro-freak agenda look EXACTLY the same? Perhaps it’s testicular under-development caused by too much soy protein.”

    This is a wholey unconstructive statement, and not sure why the commenter feels compelled to attack concerned citizens for trying to be responsible and prudent. I think the point of the story is laid out in the following statement from Peter Bella:

    “We’re at the early stages of growth of the Eagle Ford,” says Peter Bella, natural resources director for the Alamo Council of Governments.
    “That’s why we want to try and understand it the best we can and get ahead of the curve and not be playing catch-up,” Bella told StateImpact.

    Lisa Wright

  • Karen Westmont

     Company executives should have to live with their children next to drilling and productive wells, as should their spokespeople and the company shareholders.  Nuclear, mining, and chemical companies also should have their most senior staff required to live 85% time next door to their production facilities and get their water from their own wells.  Only 

     if executives live next
    door to the danger

    can we count on the ‘safety’ they claim.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/ZVGANR73GEGGZIM64ACGZBS2Y4 Jabar

     And along with economic growth, many people are likely to experience other types of growths as well… mainly of the tumor variety.  Too bad so many people that are affected by drilling and fracking are also against affordable healthcare.  We’ll just have to see how that develops.

  • Cpadmitchell

    Texas could become the biggest air polluter in the USA.  That such could reduce the population by the deaths of persons breathing the toxic air is but a small cost in energy independence.

  • OutOfBox

    So all the strides with cleaner car emission is for naught!  Kind of ironic, this vicious cycle of reclaiming dinosaurs bones might make us extinct.  Quit F&@cking Mother Earth! 

  • http://twitter.com/BenGaieck Ben Gaieck

    The day that Texas cracks down on drilling practices is the day I eat my Stetson. 

  • Jess Perry

    why do we allow them to flare for so many years when norway and nigeria have banned it ourright and still can produce large amounts of oil/nat gas??? good old american greed??

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