Texas Takes Backseat Controlling Its Massive Methane Problem

3829465133_78b173bff0_bA new study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, finds that methane emissions from oil and gas facilities in North Texas’ Barnett Shale are likely as much as 90 percent higher than previous estimates based on data from the Environmental Protection Agency.

This is no small matter. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas rapidly accelerating the rate of climate change. But it’s also emitted with other harmful pollutants, like Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that contribute to smog levels, as well as the cancer causing compound benzene. One study estimates that oil and gas production in the Barnett Shale Region in Texas contributes 19,888 tons of VOCs per year while estimates for the Eagle Ford Shale region just south of San Antonio project oil and gas operations could produce up to 1,248 tons per day VOC by 2018. Both the DFW area and San Antonio are struggling with high smog levels.

And based on the findings of the new methane study, we now know that there are instances where the magnitude of oil and gas emissions is even higher than previously thought. That is especially troubling for the more than 6 million people living in the DFW area who are at risk of developing or exacerbating respiratory and other health problems as a result of this unnecessary air pollution. Unnecessary because recent analysis concludes that emissions can be drastically reduced by implementing cost-effective and “off the shelf” pollution reduction technologies and practices – begging the question: why has Texas, the leading oil and gas producing state, not been a leader on reducing this harmful pollution?

BarnettSynthesisKeyFindingsIn recent years, Colorado and Wyoming have both implemented  policies to reduce methane and VOC emissions related to oil and gas development, and both states have continued to see oil field employment increase. Let’s repeat the last part of that sentence: both states have continued to see oil field employment increase. Unfortunately, while other states tackle the problem head on, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – the state agency responsible for monitoring and protecting air quality – has gone on the record saying the agency has no plans to address Texas’ massive methane pollution problem.

Since methane essentially is natural gas, capturing emissions can actually help companies prevent waste by keeping product in the pipeline rather than the atmosphere. In addition, by not implementing polices aimed at reducing emissions, Texas overlooks the opportunity to further grow an existing state industry. As it turns out, there are nearly 200 local businesses across the state that specialize in methane mitigation – further underscoring that clean air and local economic development can, and do, go hand-in-hand.

In 2011, TCEQ did put in place some very modest policies to try to protect the region’s air quality from the intensive oil and gas development occurring in North Texas’ Barnett Shale. Unfortunately, as this latest study shows, those efforts are clearly insufficient.

This is in part because TCEQ, unlike Colorado and Wyoming, does not have an adequate program requiring companies to regularly check and fix leaky oil and gas equipment responsible for these harmful emissions. As multiple studies have indicated, and this newest study affirms, the vast majority of emissions come from what scientists refer to as “super emitters”—a small group of large, unpredictable sources that can leak VAST quantities of methane and other pollutants into the atmosphere – sometimes indefinitely. A robust leak detection and repair program is the best way to catch and stop these high-polluting sources.

Fortunately, EPA recently proposed national standards to reduce methane and VOC emissions at new and modified oil and gas facilities – an important step in protecting the climate as well as public health and safety. Yet, despite the large amount of methane emissions that this and dozens of other studies have confirmed, Texas remains opposed to establishing or even supporting smart, cost-effective air quality protections. In fact, TCEQ recently submitted comments to the EPA on the proposed methane rule saying that it will be a “logistical burden” on the agency, and too expensive for the agency and industry.

The Barnett Shale is one of the largest oil and gas fields in the nation. It is also almost entirely surrounded by urban and suburban development. In other words, there are lots and lots of people living right next door to oil and gas operations. Instead of a “can’t do” attitude toward clean air protections, it’s time for Texas to emulate the “can do” approach of other energy producing states.

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One Comment

  1. Kim Feil
    Posted December 9, 2015 at 12:22 PM | Permalink

    Previously non-regulated CH4 losses from these lift compressors (regardless of the engines being electric, diesel, or natural gas fueled) during their blowdown maintenance is astounding at these drill sites in the Barnett Shale under a Permit By Rule (a promise that they don't emit 25 tpy vocs)…when I looked at the GM padsites PBR# 101916, in their Process Description, their Caterpillar 3306 NA engines have an estimated 20 blowdowns a year per engine from their two 145 horsepower lift compressors “Approximately 1,000 cubic feet of gas could be vented to the atmosphere during a blowdown. One blowdown could occur in a one hour period”. I figure 20,000 cubic feet of methane per year per lift compressor. If each of Arlington’s 57 padsites (including UT Arlington) has two lift compressors, then 114 lift compressors times an annual 20,000 cubic ft of natural gas equals about 2.3 million cubic feet of GHG’s annually released in O U R Arlington TX air shed (not including our two gas compressor facilities). Also during blowdowns we don't know how many of the drill sites are releasing 100% of whats in te pipes into the airshed…instead they could bleed it down to the sales line?