Texas Clean Air Matters

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 are 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 / Read 1 Response

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 , , , , , , , | Read 4 Responses

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 are 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 / Read 4 Responses