Author Archives: Ramon Alvarez, Ph.D.

A New Study Points to the Need for Improved Air Monitoring in Texas

Source: Dallas Observer

Source: Dallas Observer

A new study accepted for publication in Environmental Science & Technology takes a close look at the amount of certain air pollutants in the Barnett Shale, a booming oil and gas region in North Texas. Using public monitoring data from 2010-2011, researchers from the University of Texas at Austin compared air pollution levels measured at a monitor surrounded by oil and gas operations to the levels that would be expected based on available emission estimates. The result brings to light that the emissions inventory from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for the Barnett Shale does not add up to the observations.

There are numerous air pollutants that can be emitted by oil and natural gas development.  Depending on the local composition of the produced gas, emissions can often include volatile organic compounds (VOC, such as propane, butane, pentane, etc.) that contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone (also known as smog), and toxic air pollutants like benzene and hexane that are directly hazardous to human health.  Methane, the primary ingredient in natural gas and a greenhouse gas catching lots of attention these days, is another powerful pollutant associated with these operations. Unlike the pollutants listed above, methane directly affects the health of our climate rather than human health. Fortunately, available technologies designed to capture methane are also effective in reducing these other pollutants. However, methane controls alone may not ensure that local air quality concerns are addressed – these require special attention.  Read More »

Posted in Air Pollution, Barnett Shale, Dallas Fort-Worth, GHGs, Natural gas, Oil, Ozone, TCEQ| Comments closed

Protecting The Environment and Public Health Through Strong Science

Last week’s announcement of the publication of a University of Texas (UT) study examining methane emissions from U.S. natural gas production sites marks a major milestone in EDF's efforts to better quantify the amount of methane leakage across the natural gas supply chain.  The UT study is the first installment of a major EDF initiative being conducted in partnership with leading research universities, scientists and natural gas companies.

About five years ago, EDF began looking into the emissions of air pollutants coming from natural gas operations in multiple geographic regions – including various parts of Texas.  This was a time when the industry was undergoing a dramatic growth spurt thanks to technologies such as horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (or ‘fracking’), which enable the commercial extraction of natural gas from deposits of shale rock located deep underground.  We quickly learned that available estimates of how much methane was emitted were fairly uncertain.

Small amounts of natural gas, which mainly consists of methane, a powerful global warming pollutant, are lost into the air as the gas coming out of the ground makes its way from the wells that produce it and through the processing and pipeline systems bringing it to consumers.   We have written elsewhere why these emissions matter for our climate, environment and public health.   Read More »

Posted in Air Pollution, Climate Change, Environment, Natural gas| Tagged , | Comments closed

Strong Standards Are Needed To Protect Human Health From Harmful Air Pollution Emitted From Oil And Gas Activities

Update: Please note that the EPA is now due to finalize the national emission standards for oil and gas activities by Tuesday, April 17.

This commentary was originally posted on the EDF Energy Exchange Blog.

On April 3, 2012 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is due to finalize national emission standards to limit some of the harmful air pollutants discharged from a variety of oil and gas activities.   As Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has noted in past blogs, leaks, venting and flaring of natural gas from oil and gas activities contribute to ground-level ozone ("smog") and toxic air pollution.  As proposed, EPA's standards would reduce volatile organic compounds that contribute to smog by 25% and hazardous air pollutants by 30%, through the implementation of proven and highly cost-effective practices and technologies. 

Emissions from Oil and Gas Activities Linked to Unhealthy Levels of Ozone "Smog" Pollution

Extensive oil and gas development in parts of rural Wyoming and Utah, where little other industrial activity occurs, has led to dangerous ozone levels, higher than those recorded in some of the most heavily polluted cities. Last year, families in Wyoming’s Upper Green River Basin suffered over forty days in which ozone concentrations exceeded the current health standard.  In Utah’s Uintah basin, residents experienced twice this number of unhealthy ozone days, with one monitor located in Ouray recording forty exceedances alone.

In 2009 then Governor of Wyoming Dave Freudenthal requested EPA designate counties within the Upper Green River Basin as out of attainment with the current ozone health standard explaining the link between natural gas emissions and the serious ozone problems: 

"The State of Wyoming is also challenged by the need to reduce emissions from the natural gas industry which has not traditionally been regulated for ozone nonattainment problems….Therefore, the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality (WDEQ) has already identified the sources that require controls such as drill rigs, pneumatic pumps, dehydration units and small heaters."

EPA  in turn concluded “[t]he [Wyoming] AQD’s analysis provided with its recommendation shows that elevated ozone at the Boulder monitor is primarily due to local emissions from oil and gas development activities: drilling, production, storage, transport and treating of oil and natural gas.”

In Colorado and Texas, smog-forming emissions from the oil and gas industry have exceeded other major sources of pollution such as vehicles.   In 2008, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment concluded that the smog-forming emissions from oil and gas operations exceeded vehicle emissions for the entire state.  Similarly, a 2009 study found that summertime emissions of smog-forming pollutants from oil and gas sources in the Barnett Shale were roughly comparable to emissions from all of the motor vehicles in the Dallas Fort-Worth area.

Oil and Gas Activities Emit Benzene-A Known Carcinogen-and other Air Toxics

Venting, flaring and equipment leaks also emit hazardous air pollutants or air toxics, including hydrogen sulfide, formaldehyde and benzene into the environment.  Elevated levels of benzene have been detected near gas production sites in Texas and Colorado. In 2010 the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) measured acute concentrations of benzene that exceeded the state’s health-based risk levels at two exploration and production sites in the Barnett Shale in Texas. Research based on air samples taken from oil and gas sites in the Piceance Basin in Colorado in 2008 determined that emissions from well completions, dehydration units, and condensate tanks posed an elevated cancer risk to nearby residents. Similarly, atmospheric measurements collected by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that “oil and gas operations in the DJB (Denver-Julesburg Basin) could be the largest source of C6H6 (benzene) in Weld County.”

As oil and gas development continues to expand across the country, strong, national clean air standards are essential to protect public health.  EPA’s standards, which build on clean air measures already in place in states with extensive oil and gas activities, such as Colorado and Wyoming, are an important first step in strengthening clean air protections for human health and the environment.

Posted in Air Pollution, Barnett Shale, Environmental Protection Agency, Natural gas, Oil, TCEQ| Comments closed

This is our Planet on Steroids. Any Questions?

Wildfires and baseball don’t often come up in the same conversation, but perhaps they should. It’s October and the Rangers are the AL West Champions, yet many in Texas would rather talk about the weather than baseball.

In fact, according to cost estimates by the National Climatic Data Center, the $35 billion disaster tab makes 2011 the most expensive year ever for natural disaster cleanup and management–and we still have three months to go. Scientific evidence confirms that around the world, human-generated climate change contributed to and amplified record-setting heat waves, drought and fires, torrential rains and snowstorms. Baseball gives us a way to understand how heat-trapping pollutants “juice” the Earth’s atmosphere and increase the frequency and likelihood of extreme weather events. Simply put, climate change puts the weather on steroids.

By any measure, Barry Bonds was a great ballplayer: .298 lifetime batting average, seven MVP awards, 1996 RBIs. But the achievements most often associated with Bonds come with the caveat that he used performance-enhancing steroids. In his 13 professional seasons prior to 1999, when Bonds allegedly started juicing, he averaged 32 home runs per season, with a career-high of 46 in 1993. From 2000 to 2004 Bonds averaged 52 home runs a year — a 63 percent increase— and broke the single-season home run record in 2001 with 73 home runs.

Imagine you were a fan at a Giants game in 2001. Is there any way to tell that steroids specifically caused the home run you witnessed? No. Bonds had hit with power throughout his career, so a home run would not have been out of the ordinary. What is accurate, though, is that steroids increased the chances that he would hit a home run. And therein lies the connection between climate change and steroids and baseball. Just as an atmosphere loaded with greenhouse gas pollution increases the frequency and potency of extreme weather events, Bonds’ steroid use increased his muscle mass and extended his workout times. It made home runs more likely.

A common argument against climate change is the inherent variability of weather patterns. To be sure, cycles such as El Niño combine with the sun and myriad other natural factors to create weather, and intense weather events would occur without climate change. No climatologist denies this fact, just as no one denies Barry Bonds’ natural athletic ability. But research confirms that when an outside force (steroids) compounds existing natural variation (athletic ability), the intensity and frequency of extreme weather events (home runs) rise.

People routinely ask climate scientists if a specific event can be attributed to climate change. Such a conclusion has been considered impossible because of the various forces that combine to create weather events, both benign and catastrophic. What could be said with great certainty is that climate change alters how weather events unfold, increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme events. Now, however, climate change’s influence on weather is becoming so pervasive that the classic question no longer applies, says Dr. Richard Somerville, climate scientist and professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego."All weather events are now influenced by climate change, because they develop in a different environment than before."

No one can pinpoint which of Bonds’ home runs should be stricken from the record books due to steroid use. But the overall effect is clear: the legitimacy of his achievements is challenged constantly. For the planet and its people, the cumulative consequences of climate change will be more disastrous than a tarnished reputation.

Denial is not an option. Inaction will only mean more record-breaking disasters for Texas, even if the Rangers win the World Series. The time for action on climate change is now.

Posted in Air Pollution, Environment| Comments closed

Energy Producers Capture More Today Than In "Good Old Days" But We'll All Benefit If They Do Better

In the frontier days of drilling in the 1900s, discoveries such as Spindletop in Texas and the Drake in Pennsylvania heralded a new era of energy for America. Back then, the gaseous by-product produced at the wellhead was considered a nuisance and flared (burned) or released into the air. Today, it's considered a valuable energy source and routinely harnessed, which results in economic and environmental benefits. Capturing gas cuts emissions that contribute to ground-level ozone, cause cancer, and contribute to climate change.

Given that it’s 2011, we’re way past the conditions of the 1900s. But, whereas the process of capturing natural gas as an energy source has come a long way, many improvements must still be made to ensure producers capture the maximum amount of natural gas “upstream” at wellheads and throughout the gas processing and transportation network.

Just because the gas can’t be seen doesn’t mean it isn't hazardous. In the last three years, new data shows that natural gas leaks might be twice as high as previously thought. This means that a lot more air pollution is fouling the air we breathe.

The pollution comes from equipment on-site (tanks, valves, compressor engines, flanges), at processing plants (where raw natural gas is purified for residential and commercial use) and throughout the pipeline system.

If you know anyone that lives near drilling sites — such as the Barnett Shale in Texas, the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, Piceance and big chunks of Colorado and Wyoming — you’ve likely heard stories about their public health and environmental impacts.

EDF sponsored a study showing that the emissions produced by natural gas operations around Barnett Shale rival those from 4 million cars and trucks in the Dallas-Fort Worth metro area. Around the country, those who live nearby drilling sites have reported higher incidents of health concerns including respiratory and skin irritation, neurological problems, dizziness and headaches. And in some instances, elevated levels of benzene — a known carcinogen — have been detected.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed rules that would require use of technologies and practices to capture more of the natural gas now being allowed into the air. These clean air standards are sensible, which makes you wonder why it’s taken a century to put these rules into place at the national level. It also makes you wonder why industry would fight them when they can capture more natural gas and bring it to market. Indeed, in addition to the health and environmental benefits of the rule, there are economic benefits.

A number of natural gas companies already use the practices that the EPA is proposing to cut methane and are touting the resulting economic benefits.

Similar requirements to those the EPA proposed have been in place in Colorado and Wyoming without adverse affects on companies’ profits. Who isn’t for a win-win solution?

I’ll be blogging more about this proposal in the coming days. Please get involved by writing to the EPA in favor of updated clean air protections. We also invite you to join us and share your thoughts with the EPA at the upcoming public hearings in: Pittsburgh, Sept. 27; Denver, Sept. 28; and in Arlington, Texas on Sept. 29. If you can't make the hearings, you can submit comments online until Oct. 24.

There's no better time than now to make your voice heard and show your support for clean air.

Posted in Air Pollution, Barnett Shale, Environment, Environmental Protection Agency, Natural gas| Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Responses, comments now closed

Interim Report on Fort Worth Natural Gas Air Quality Study Leaves Biggest Questions Unanswered

Last week, the Fort Worth City Council received an interim report on its Natural Gas Air Quality Study initiated last August.  Unfortunately, this interim report was short on details about the most unique aspect of the project – the direct measurement of emissions at the point of release.

The interim report only presented high-level summaries of results of sampling at 66 sites out of 170 sites where emissions were detected in Phase I (no emissions were detected at another 31 sites).  Stated differently, the interim report provided no information about nearly two-thirds of the sites with detectable emissions. Read More »

Posted in Air Pollution, Environment, TCEQ| Tagged , , | Comments closed
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