Category Archives: Barnett Shale

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 »

Also posted in Air Pollution, Dallas Fort-Worth, GHGs, Natural gas, Oil, Ozone, TCEQ | Leave a comment

Microsensing: Air Pollution Measurements In The Palm Of Your Hand

The science behind air pollution in urban areas is clear: smog has been linked to premature deaths, increased asthma attacks and breathing problems, and increased hospital visits.  But most of us have no way of knowing about the pollutants that we’re exposed to on a daily basis. Expressways, waste facilities, and dry cleaners create highly-localized pollution that may not be detected by the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) regional air monitoring data.  Larger-scale air monitoring isn't designed to capture these types of traditional pollution sources, nor does it record local effects of unconventional emissions sources associated with  oil and gas development.  We have no real way to know when our local air pollution hits dangerous levels, and no way to avoid hazardous air in our communities.  Both Houston and Dallas rank among the most polluted cities in the United States, according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air 2013.  With well over 12 million Texans living in the Dallas/Houston metro areas, it’s crucial that concerned citizens have access to the right tools to monitor air pollution and take preventative measures when pollutants reach dangerous levels.

Michael Heimbinder, a Brooklyn entrepreneur, hopes to empower individuals with his small-scale air quality monitoring system, AirCasting.  The AirCasting system uses a mobile, Bluetooth-enabled air monitor not much larger than a smartphone to measure carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter and other pollutants.  An accompanying Android app records and formats the information to an emissions map.  Alternatively, another instrument, The Air Quality Egg, comes pre-assembled ready to use.  Innovative air monitoring systems, like AirCasting or The Air Quality Egg, empower ordinary citizens to monitor the pollution they encounter daily and proactively address problematic sources of pollution.

This technology is part of a growing movement to enable the use of small sensors. In response to inquiries about small-sensor data, the EPA is researching the next generation of air measuring technologiesEPA experts are working with sensor developers to evaluate data quality and understand useful sensor applications.  Through this ongoing collaboration, the EPA hopes to bolster measurements from conventional, stationary air-monitoring systems with data collected from individuals’ air quality microsensors. Read More »

Also posted in Air Pollution, Environment, Environmental Protection Agency | Tagged | Comments closed

Loose Use Of Facts Undermines Credibility Of White’s OpEd

An erroneous and misleading opinion piece by Kathleen Hartnett White with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, ran in Sunday's The Austin American-Statesman. In the article, White misrepresents several important details from a 4-year old EDF report that was prepared by Dr. Al Armendariz, a former Regional Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. The report catalogued emissions from oil and gas production in the Barnett Shale area. Her purported facts about the study findings are just plain wrong.

First, she claims that the report concluded that ozone precursor emissions from Barnett Shale production are twice as large as all mobile source emissions in the area. In fact, the report concluded that peak Barnett Shale emissions, while significant, were roughly comparable to emissions from cars and trucks (see press release accompanying the report).

White then claims that Dr. Armendariz’s study considered methane to be an ozone precursor, contrary to what is clearly stated in the report at p. 8. While it is true that methane does form ozone, albeit slowly, the report states "[m]ethane and ethane are specifically excluded from the definition of VOC” (volatile organic compounds). Thus, the report excluded methane from the comparison to mobile emissions of ozone precursors.

It is unclear if the author even read Dr. Armendariz's work, which was not computer modeling, as she claims. Rather, it was an emissions “inventory,” a catalog of the air pollutant emissions from oil/gas sources in the Barnett Shale area, constructed using established engineering practices and industry-backed data sources. The core pieces of information for the inventory were oil/gas production data that are available for every county in Texas from databases at the Texas Railroad Commission. Dr. Armendariz’s resulting emissions estimates were in reasonable agreement with estimates issued by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality later in 2009 (10-20% difference).

You can’t make a strong case when you get facts wrong. And, it is irresponsible for White to make her case by manipulating science, while cynically blaming government bodies of committing the same sin.

It’s time we all get the facts right and use science to expose truths, not veil our own agenda. For our part, EDF is working with leading academic researchers and industry leaders to conduct scientifically rigorous measurements of emissions from natural gas production. Leaks that occur during production (as well as distribution and use) stand to significantly undermine the potential of natural gas as a lower carbon energy source.

Also posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Protection Agency, Natural gas, Ozone, TCEQ | Tagged , | Comments closed

Natural Gas: A Question Of Sustainability

Today there are around 45,000 shale gas wells operating in the United States – triple the number in 2005 – and as a result, people are rightfully concerned about the extent of the shale boom’s potential damage to the environment.

The issue became the focal point of discussion this month in “Can Natural Gas Be Sustainable?,” a five-person panel presentation at the second annual SXSW Eco conference in Austin. As part of the panel, we discussed how stronger standards and employing best practices could minimize impacts of increased natural gas production in the wake of growing public concern about the health and environmental impacts of drilling.

Attendees of SXSW Eco represented a broad swath of perspectives, ranging from those who were against any natural gas development to those who wanted to see much more natural gas development. One attendee even criticized the title of the panel, presenting the position that developing any non-renewable resource is inherently not sustainable.

As for the sustainability question, one thing is clear: the natural gas industry has a lot of opportunity for improvement, and there is mounting public pressure to address environmental concerns. Nearly 61 percent of Americans have negative views about the oil and gas industry – higher than any other industry (David Blackmon, from FTI Consulting, actually joked that this was an improvement!)

As part of the discussion, I spoke about the many environmental and health impacts associated with natural gas development. Construction and drilling equipment can degrade local air quality with smog-forming pollutants and air toxics (Example: activities at the Barnett Shale in Texas).  I also spoke about the implications of faulty well construction as one of the major causes of natural gas leakage, and emphasized that while natural gas is touted as a low-carbon fuel source, leaks from the production, distribution, and use of natural gas could undermine the greenhouse gas advantage combusted natural gas has over coal.

EDF is working hard to address the key problem areas associated with natural gas development: exposure to toxic chemicals and waste products; faulty well construction and design; climate impacts from methane leakage; local and regional air pollution; and land use and community impacts. Our team is engaging with community, government and industry stakeholders to help identify ways to minimize both human health and environmental risk, including:

  • Comprehensive disclosure of hydraulic fracturing chemicals
  • Modernization of rules for well construction and operation
  • Systems-based management of wastes and water
  • State and national standards for improving air quality and reducing climate impacts
  • Minimization of land use and community impacts from natural gas development

Fellow SXSW Panelists

Other speakers presented varying perspectives on natural gas issues. Chris Helman, Associate Editor of Forbes magazine, moderated the panel and emphasized the public interest on the topic, as well as the contribution of natural gas to the country’s energy portfolio.

George Peridas, a scientist from NRDC, prefaced his comments by saying, “We have a lot of work to do before we can call natural gas clean.” Peridas gave examples of numerous exemptions given the natural gas industry under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act. As well, those tasked with enforcing the state natural gas regulations that currently exist lack the ability to go out, fully inspect and enforce those standards. The result, he said, was that “industry is a self-policing entity right now.”

Much of his policy work focuses on climate change and correspondingly, Peridas said that natural gas could help with climate change and air quality when compared to coal. “The key is that gas needs to displace dirtier fuels,” he said. “A bridge is not the right frame of mind, and we cannot afford to treat gas as an abundant resource. We need to address its impacts now.”

Some of the solutions Peridas proposed included: designation of “off-limits” areas that provide fresh water resources or wildlife/conservation value; stopping those leaks that waste methane and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions; development of a comprehensive guide for how to drill safely (e.g., proper cement jobs at well sites); repealing the outrageous exemptions at the federal level that industry currently enjoys; focusing on measures and policies that promote solutions (e.g., solar energy); and ensuring that communities have a say in whether drilling proceeds in their areas.

Sister Elizabeth Riebschlaeger, a nun with Congregation Of The Sisters Of Charity Of The Incarnate Word, and community advocate for the Eagle Ford Shale, agreed strongly with co-panelist George Peridas and his push for more local regulations. She told the story of citizens in small, rural Texas towns being strongly impacted by the Eagle Ford shale, and even used the phrase “merciless exploitation” to describe her own such experience.

Sister Elizabeth asked the rhetorical question: “Are we counting our natural gas clean energy chickens before they hatch?” She then emphasized that society must consider all of the activities required to produce natural gas, including activities she has observed in the Eagle Ford Shale: trucks and heavy equipment; travel trailers for workers; transporting of sand and chemicals, fracking equipment, and toxic waste (produced during operations); construction of huge batteries and tanks; rigs operating 24 hours a day; loud compressor stations; damage to land requiring clean up; and more.

David Blackmon, managing director at FTI Consulting, represented industry’s point of view, which touts the “reality that over half of our electricity generating capacity is natural gas.” The demand for natural gas includes backing up intermittent supply from solar and wind power. He said that natural gas was one of the only power sources that could be “cycled up” in a matter of minutes and that coal made this process more expensive.

Blackmon said that the key to making natural gas sustainable was ensuring public trust; trust that it is being appropriately regulated at federal, state and local levels. “I absolutely agree that there are not enough inspectors in the Texas Railroad Commission to regulate it,” he said. “The good news is that most companies in the industry recognize the need for public trust and are working towards that.”

Also posted in Air Pollution, Clean Air Act, Natural gas | 2 Responses, comments now 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.

Also posted in Air Pollution, Environmental Protection Agency, Natural gas, Oil, TCEQ | Comments closed

If The Problem Isn't Hydraulic Fracturing, Then What Is?

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

Today, at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Vancouver, the Energy Institute at the University of Texas at Austin released a major report titled, “Fact-Based Regulation for Environmental Protection in Shale Gas Development.” The report’s conclusions are those of the authors, though Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) helped the University of Texas at Austin define its scope of work and reviewed drafts during the course of the project.

What are the main conclusions? As has been the case in other inquiries, the University of Texas study did not find any confirmed cases of drinking water contamination due to pathways created by hydraulic fracturing. But this does not mean such contamination is impossible or that hydraulic fracturing chemicals can’t get loose in the environment in other ways (such as through spills of produced water). In fact, the study shines a light on the fact that there are a number of aspects of natural gas development that can pose significant environmental risk. And it highlights the fact that there are a number of ways in which current regulatory oversight is inadequate.

The following conclusions are particularly important:

  • Many reports of groundwater contamination occur in conventional oil and gas operations (e.g. failure of well-bore casing and cementing) and are not unique to hydraulic fracturing.
  • Surface spills of fracturing fluids appear to pose greater risks to groundwater than hydraulic fracturing itself.
  • Blowouts – uncontrolled fluid releases during construction and operation – are a rare occurrence, but subsurface blowouts appear to be under-reported.
  • The lack of baseline studies makes it difficult to evaluate the long-term, cumulative effects and risks associated with hydraulic fracturing.
  • Most state oil and gas regulations were written well before shale gas development became widespread.
  • Gaps remain in the regulation of well casing and cementing, water withdrawal and usage, and waste storage and disposal.
  • Enforcement capacity is highly variable among the states, particularly when measured by the ratio of staff to numbers of inspections conducted.

The report deserves widespread attention. But it is by no means the final word on these topics. Chip Groat, who led the study on behalf of the Energy Institute, plans to tackle additional topics in the future. These include air emissions from natural gas operations, induced seismicity and a field and laboratory investigation of whether hydrogeologic connectivity exists between the Barnett Shale and aquifers and other geologic units above and below the formation.

To read the complete report, visit http://energy.utexas.edu/

Also posted in Natural gas, Oil | 1 Response, comments now 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.

Also posted in Air Pollution, Environment, Environmental Protection Agency, Natural gas | Tagged , , , , , , , | 4 Responses, comments now closed

Natural Gas: Finding Solutions

While the natural gas industry engages in a rocky public perception war, EDF continues to invite industry collaboration on development of more transparent, environmentally responsible drilling methods necessary to rebuild public trust.

In that regard, I appeared on MSNBC’s The Dylan Ratigan Show this month to help emphasize the message that environmentalists and industry are not opposing forces on shale gas development.

My main points included:

  • From our perspective, there are risks associated with any natural energy resource. However, at Environmental Defense Fund we are realists and we realize that natural gas is part of a diverse energy portfolio. What we are concerned about is that regulations are not in place to effectively protect the public.
  • There are certain criteria that need to be addressed, namely: well construction and design, air emissions associated with oil and gas drilling, and what to do with the produced water once it is extracted.
  • We (EDF) have been working on those issues. The problem is that we need more industry support. We need industry to recognize that the public has legitimate, valid concerns and that if we work together, we can help solve some of these problems. For instance, air emissions can be reduced by capturing vapors from the storage tanks that have been a problem in the Barnett Shale area.

More evidence of our position and collaborative nature can be found in a recent National Geographic article, which highlights a joint industry-environmentalist model approach toward solving issues associated with shale gas drilling. Read More »

Also posted in Air Pollution, GHGs, Natural gas | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Comments closed

TCEQ Buckles On Oil & Gas Rules Under Pressure From Industry

After a 10-month process, the TCEQ finally ended the suspense regarding what emissions safeguards the oil and gas industry will have to follow in order to protect the citizens of Texas.  On Wednesday, the TCEQ adopted a much, much weaker rule than the one it proposed in July (see details at the bottom of this post).  The rule was dramatically scaled back to apply only to those living near the Barnett Shale near Dallas-Fort Worth and, miraculously, the process will begin anew to decide what protections will apply elsewhere.

If you are reading this, you are probably wondering what I think about the outcome.   I’ll answer by telling you what I am going to tell my boss, who will surely ask how my efforts – scores of hours attending meetings, writing comments, coordinating and consulting with experts on this topic (as well as having to watch industry unrelentingly bully TCEQ staff) – translated into results.

It is a fair question given that I truly threw myself into this one.  I convinced myself (and my boss) that – this time – it was going to be different.  With all of the attention focused on the emissions from natural gas operations, including reports showing how the emissions from the oil and gas industry were much higher than everyone assumed, I thought this time we actually had a chance to help TCEQ do the right thing.    Read More »

Also posted in Air Pollution, Environment, GHGs, TCEQ | 4 Responses, comments now closed
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