Study: Gas Drilling “Significantly” Increasing DFW Smog

by jim on September 4, 2012

In the middle of another bad North Texas ozone season, a new study by a Houston research consortium concludes that Barnett Shale natural gas facilities "significantly" raise smog levels in DFW, affecting air quality far downwind.

According to the study, ozone impacts from gas industry pollution are so large, they'll likely keep North Texas from being able to achieve the EPA's new 75 parts per billion (ppb) ozone standard.

Author Eduardo P. Olaguer, a Senior Research Scientist and Director of Air Quality Research at the Houston Advanced Research Center, concludes that, "Major metropolitan areas in or near shale formations will be hard pressed to demonstrate future attainment of the federal ozone standard, unless significant controls are placed on emissions from increased oil and gas exploration and production….urban drilling and the associated growth in industry emissions may be sufficient to keep the area (DFW) in nonattainment."

Olaguer's article describing his study was recently published in the July 18th edition of the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association. It's the first independent study to examine specific North Texas ozone impacts from the gas industry.

Environmental groups say air pollution from natural gas sources is already making it impossible for DFW to meet even the obsolete 15-year old standard of 85 ppb. So far in 2012, five monitors have violated that level of smog despite a state plan that Austin guaranteed would reduce ozone concentrations in DFW to record lows this year. Counting 2012's failure, DFW has been in continual violation of the Clean Air Act for its smog pollution since 1991.

"This study is proof we need a regional strategy of self-defense to reduce air pollution from the gas industry," said Downwinders at Risk Director Jim Schermbeck, whose group has been leading the fight to reduce smog-forming pollution from gas sources for two years now. "TCEQ and EPA are not doing enough to rein-in these facilities. Despite their official plans, our air is getting dirtier, not cleaner because gas pollution is still under-regulated. It's time for us to do more at the local level."

Schermbeck suggested the study could make a difference in the upcoming city council vote on a new Dallas gas drilling ordinance.

"Dallas has a chance to react positively to this new evidence by adopting the nation's first policy aimed at mitigating the tons of new pollution caused by gas mining in its new drilling ordinance. That would be a very large step forward in advancing regional clean air goals."

A city-wide coalition of neighborhood, homeowners, and environmental groups has been urging the Dallas city council to require gas operators to reduce as much air pollution as they release through funding of anti-pollution measures across the city. The Houston Center study gives them a lot of fresh arguments.

According to it, "…oil and gas activities can have significant near-source impacts on ambient ozone, through either regular emissions or flares and other emission events associated with process upsets,and perhaps also maintenance, startup, and shutdown of oil and gas facilities."

In fact, just routine emissions from a single gas compressor station or large flare can raise ozone levels by 3 parts per billion as far as five miles downwind, and sometimes by 10 ppb or more as far as 10 miles downwind.

Those impacts rival the size of smog effects traced back to the Midlothian cement kilns or East Texas coal-fired power plants by previous studies.

As the study notes, "Given the possible impact of large single facilities, it is all the more conceivable that aggregations of oil and gas sites may act in concert so that they contribute several parts per billion to 8-hr ozone during actual exceedances."

This conclusion directly contradicts the stance of the Natural Gas industry and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, both of which deny that Barnett Shale gas emissions are large enough or located in areas that can influence DFW ozone levels.

But the Houston study is based in part on data collected by industry, as well as information from the city-sponsored "Fort Worth Study," and citizen-sponsored testing in the town of DISH in Denton County. It also uses a kind of computer modeling that allows for a more realistic understanding of how large releases from gas facilities can increase ozone pollution than the one the TCEQ uses.  It's the most sophisticated challenge yet to the state and industry's claim that gas emissions do not constitute a large threat to DFW air quality.

"This is reality-based science, not the ideologically-influenced happy talk that's coming out of TCEQ these days," said Schermbeck. "Local governments in North Texas, especially those that are traditional allies of clean air, need to pay close attention and act on it."

The report is available for downloading here.

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