Fracking Makes Our Bad Air Worse

by jim on March 25, 2012

A lot of people may think that the largest public health problems linked to horizontal gas drilling,or fracking, are all water-related. They are not, at least not yet. It’s the huge amounts of air pollution fracking generates and its consequences for nearby residents, downwind dwellers, and the planet as a whole that are really pose the paramount risks to the most people. Take smog. Saturday’s record-setting ozone levels remind us again that DFW is a 21-year old chronic violator of the Clean Air Act. Fracking generates both kinds of smog-forming pollutants identified by the EPA and the state – Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) from combustion sources, and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from the leakage and “upsets” of chemicals in tanks, pipelines, and other facilities and pieces of equipment. In 2006, NOx pollution from the gas industry was estimated to be over 68 tons per day by the state. That was more than all three cement plants in Midlothian combined, plus every other large stationary source of NOx pollution in the region. By this year that number is expected to drop by 2/3rds because of new rules by the state requiring more modern diesel engines and less drilling in the Barnett Shale in general. TCEQ believes NOx pollution has more of an impact on DFW ozone levels than VOCs, and so it got more serious about regulating the NOx pollution from fracking. But that theory is being seriously tested. This year, again according to the state, all the cars and trucks in DFW will produce 80 tons per day of VOC air pollution. Oil and gas production in DFW will produce 114 tons per day of the same kinds of pollutants – 34 more tons a day than all cars and trucks combined, and the largest emissions by far from any one industry in North Texas. TCEQ says not to worry about the smog impact of these gas VOC emissions because they’re aren’t as reactive or volatile as the kind vehicles emit and are less likely to form ozone. Independent scientists and regulators disagree, especially given the volume of the pollution. Denver officials believe that when already dirty air – from other urban areas, or coal plants or cement plants – combines with the VOCs from the gas industry, it actually makes the gas VOCs more volatile, and more likely to form ozone. This phenomenon has never been incorporated into the computer modeling TCEQ uses to predict ozone formation in DFW. In 2011, DFW had its worst smog season in five years, even as the state refused to significantly cut VOC emissions from the gas industry. You don’t have to live near a gas well to feel the effects of the drilling going on in North Texas. All you have to do is breathe.  The same VOCs that cause smog are also the most responsible for making near-by residents ill with their toxic fumes. Benzene, formaldehyde, and other VOCs are routinely released or escape from gas facilities. A recent Colorado School of Public Health study found a resident’s cancer risks increased 66% when they lived within a half mile, or over 2000 feet from a fracking operation. Many of the chemical exposures recorded residents near wells by way of state-issued hand held canisters are exactly the same ones Midlothian residents found when they used the same canisters to test their bad air downwind of the cement plants when they were burning hazardous wastes. And the official response is the same as well. Despite the fact that the resident is testing the air when he or she is feeling the health effects of air pollution, the levels of poisons never seem to reach above mandated levels of concern that would trigger action. But of course those levels are based on theory and never put to the test in any epidemiological way – except when residents’ experience contradict the theory – and then its the residents who must be mistaken, not the theory. If you live next to a fracking well operation, you live next door to a hazardous facility that’s capable of generating toxic air pollution just like a hazardous waste incinerator, a chemical plant, or refinery. Finally,  the same air pollution from gas operations that causes smog and sick people also contributes to climate change.  Fracking, along with gas processing, and especially compressors to generate pressure instead of wells and pipelines produce very large volumes of Greenhouse Gases. A recent EPA survey of GHG from all Texas facilities shows compressor stations spewing anywhere from 10,000 to over 90.000 tons of GHG pollution. Industry spokespeople say not to worry because most of this is methane that is relatively short-lived compared to other kinds of Greenhouse Gases like CO2.  The problem with that argument is that while it might have a shorter life span, methane is many times more potent in its greenhouse effect. So much so that a recent groups of climate change experts recently said that the best thing we could do in the short term for negating climate change would be to concentrate on reducing methane and particulate matter pollution. This is most relevant to Dallas because of all North Texas cities, it’s the one that has officially pledged to cut its GHG pollution along a specific timetable. Just one compressor station within its city limits and any hope of meeting those goals is lost. So one kind of air pollution from the gas industry is responsible for all three impacts – local, regional and global. That’s why the Dallas Residents at Risk alliance has endorsed off-setting, or balancing any increases in GHG emissions caused by the gas industry with industry-sponosored reductions in Dallas that keep our total air pollution burden from skyrocketing. It’s the first time this strategy has been advocated and it is the only brand new idea to be included in the Dallas Gas drilling Task Force as a “suggestion” in its cover letter to the City Council. Even its members saw the collision of City of Dallas promises to clean the air with opening the door to fracking. Gas isn’t cleaner than coal in DFW. It’s just as bad or worse.

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