TCEQ Attention to Barnett Shale Air Pollution: Better Late Than Never

Ramon Alvarez, senior scientist, Environmental Defense FundThe town of DISH, Texas (population circa 200) is located in the midst of the major natural gas drilling boom occurring in the Barnett Shale. DISH recently attracted national attention after publicizing results of air pollution measurements taken near a natural gas facility within the city.  DISH leaders hired a consultant to analyze air quality due to concerns about possible harmful effects of emissions from natural gas production on the health of its residents. Their measurements uncovered more than a dozen chemicals at levels that exceeded the Effects Screening Levels used by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).  These results were consistent with those found in tests conducted by a private property owner near Fort Worth.

That individual citizens and communities have to spend thousands of their own dollars to analyze the effects of air emissions from a major industrial boom in North Texas speaks volumes about the laissez-faire mentality of TCEQ, our state environmental agency. The Barnett Shale accounted for nearly a quarter of the natural gas produced in Texas in 2008, and prior studies have shown that the associated emissions can be substantial. Yet – nearly a decade after the Barnett boom was sparked by new drilling technologies making shale gas production economical – TCEQ has never presented any analysis of the overall effect of this industry on human health or regional air quality.

Only now, in the face of mounting local public concerns, does TCEQ finally seem to be paying attention. Representatives boldly claim that “we're really going to get a handle on the air quality in that area.” In October, they sent a mobile monitoring team to sample air quality around DISH and other parts of the Barnett Shale. [We note that, ironically, TCEQ was not testing for some of the most toxic compounds detected in DISH.]

It’s a shame that in trying “to get a handle” on air quality impacts of Barnett Shale production, TCEQ hasn’t analyzed more than 10 years of its own air monitoring data collected throughout the DFW area. Since TCEQ hadn’t done so, we decided to examine the data ourselves and found strong evidence linking Barnett Shale gas and oil production with ambient levels of air pollutants in Denton County.

In brief, we analyzed TCEQ’s own air pollution monitoring data and found that the levels of key pollutants at the Denton airport correlated well with the amount of condensate produced by natural gas wells in Denton County. We also found that the monitor at the Denton airport had the highest levels of non-methane organic compounds of all the places in the DFW Metroplex where monitoring exists. Extrapolating these results to other parts of the Barnett Shale, we would expect that if monitoring were conducted in Wise, Parker and Hood counties, the observed pollutant levels should be similar to those in Denton County (due to high levels of condensate production in those counties).

We applaud TCEQ’s recent mobile monitoring campaign and its prior emissions assessment efforts. But TCEQ must quickly translate this and other data into actionable policy options, and quickly take steps to reduce emissions. In future posts, we will review what more proactive states like Colorado are doing and highlight the tremendous win-win opportunity of capturing these emissions – both to natural gas producers and Texas taxpayers.

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