bartonvadarsmOn Wednesday the DC-based campaign money watchdog group, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) released a report totaling up all the contributions to Congress from the nation's fracking industry fom 2004 to 2012 and found, to absolutely no one's surprise, that our own Smokey Joe Barton led all comers with over half a million of grateful cash collected.

Since he was Chairman of the House Energy Committee for two of those years, and successfully led the effort to exempt fracking from federal environmental laws in the 2005 Energy Act, Barton is a favorite industry recipient.

But even the House Republicans have their limits. After his disastrous 2006 apology to former BP Chairman Tony Hayward for the White House's demand for $20 billion from the company for help in cleaning up its huge Gulf oil spill, the GOP decided that perhaps Smokey Joe wasn't the best face they cold put on energy policy and replaced him as  Chairman. Now he's the senior member of his own Committee but isn't running it. Because this kind of money follows power, most of his large eight year total came before Barton got kicked to the gutter by his own party.

And it's why in just one campaign and less than two years, Texas' junior Senator Ted Cruz has already collected more than half of Barton's total, almost $300,000, from frackers, just shy of the amount our Senior Senator John Cornyn brought in over a much longer period of time. The industry is buying lots of tickets to climb aboard the Cruz presidential campaign band wagon. In another year's time it won't be shocking if Cruz surpasses Barton, even though he's not a Committee Chair or holds nay special influence in the Senate.

closed-door1 Wednesday's public staff briefing over the new gas drilling ordinance at Dallas City Hall was every bit as biased as you'd expect from a group that's been chafing under the Plan Commission's progressive recommendations since summer.

But it's the snow job that went on in he lengthy two-hour Executive Session that should really concern you – the one where the city attorney basically said Dallas would get sued if it adopted the Plan Commission's proposed 1500-foot setback that would separate neighborhoods from gas wells and compressor stations. It's when they're aren't any cameras or members of the public in the room that staff roll out their most spectacular spin. And the threat of a lawsuit is always good for a scare too.

As it happens, Flower Mound has saved Dallas a lot of trouble. That city also has a 1500 foot setback. And in fact, gas companies HAVE sued Flower Mound. And each time, Flower Mound has won.

And then there's Lubbock. Lubbock! A city where there are two political parties: Republicans and Libertarians. Lubbock's Board of Health recommended a setback of 1500 feet.

And yet, the Dallas City Council could end up running away from a standard even Lubbock doctors endorse come the December 11th vote on a new ordinance.

There are at least five very pro-industry members of the Dallas City Council who are now trying very hard to reduce that proposed 1500-foot setback to 1000 feet or less – Vonciel Hill, Jerry Allen, Sheffie Kadane, Terrell Atkins, and Rick Callahan. All of them were quite vocal in the Q&A session that followed the briefing yesterday, tripping over each other in carrying the industry's water, and all aiming at the 1500-foot setback, the linchpin of the Plan Commission's protections. You can read the DMN description of the sorry episode here.

What we still don't know after today is where the Mayor stands. He hemmed and hawed about public safety and fiduciary responsibility but didn't come down on one side or the other. Neither did Jennifer Gates. Or Dwaine Caraway. (Lee Kleinman was MIA.) These remain the only real unknowns, since citizen groups are expecting their six anti-Trinity East votes to hold here too. And of these unknowns, the Mayor is the most critical. He's on record as saying he'll support the CPC recommendations. Residents must make him accountable for that promise, or find themselves the victim of a policy that was made-up and decided behind closed doors.

To help you do just that, we've got a quick click and send e-mail you can use to tell Mayor Rawlings you want him to use his decisive vote to support the 1500-foot setback and the other provisons of the City Plan Commission draft ordinance.

It's not the only thing citizens need to do to mobilize between now and the December 11th public hearing and vote, but it's a start. Use it today.

snakeoilBy 2018 the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality predicts DFW will finally be in compliance with the federal ozone standard. The 1987 federal ozone standard. The 2012 ozone standard? Not so much.

That was the bottom line of last Tuesday's very defensive TCEQ staff presentation on the new effort to rein-in North Texas smog at the Council of Government's headquarters in Arlington, in what could be considered the kick-off meeting of yet another "State Implementation Plan," or SIP, for DFW. A plan drawn up by the state has to be submitted in place by June of 2015, with a goal of meeting the new 75 parts per billion ozone standard by the summer of 2018.

But even giving generous credit for the effect of new, lower sulfur gasoline standards, the TCEQ's computer model predicts the area will fall short of the 75 ppb goal at four very familiar monitor sites, with final estimates just a fraction above 75 ppb at Keller, readings of 76 ppb at Grapevine and Eagle Mountain Lake and as high as 77 ppb in Denton. To understand how optimistic even this result is however, you have to know that the Denton monitor is sitting at an average of 87 ppb as of this last summer. It took 10 years for that monitor to come down from an average of 97 ppb of ozone in 2003 to 87 ppb in 2013. With its new model, TCEQ is asking everyone to believe that ozone levels will come down another 10 ppb in less than five years.

As this excellent Denton Record Chronicle piece about the TCEQ effort points out, there's plenty of reasons to be skeptical. The agency has been wildly inaccurate in its past predictions. According to the last computer model the TCEQ ran, DFW was supposed to be enjoying record low ozone levels by now. It never happened, and in fact we're still in violation of the old 1987 standard of 85 ppb.

It's this lack of progress, particularly in the last thee years, that Downwinders and others cite when we're making the argument that more aggressive control measures are needed. In countering us, the state keeps insisting that – compared to 2003 – we're doing much better. And that's true -if you stretch things out over a decade we have gotten better. But compared to 2009 and 2010, we're doing the same or even worse. Look at the last three years of results and there's no way to conclude that DFW air quality is "getting better." It's just not true.

And all of this is really just a proxy for the fight over how much natural gas pollution is to blame for that stagnation. If there's no stagnation, there can be no cause of that stagnation. If there's a rollback in air quality, there must be a cause for the rollback. And many of us think that it just might be the pervasiveness of gas productions facilities within and surrounding DFW that are contributing factors.

Chris Kite, the TCEQ computer modeler that produced the new plan, used his presentation to mostly try to rebut specific quotes and arguments cited by Downwinders Director Jim Schermbeck about the lack of local air quality progress. It was a rare and raw indication of just how much TCEQ's Austin Headquarters considers Downwinders a threat. Too bad that even his own charts betrayed Mr. Kite's counter-thesis.

For instance, look at the numbers from 2008 to 2012 for average smog levels in DFW and see if you can cite the progress in this slide from the TCEQ PowerPoint:

DV 2009-2012

 

 

 

 

For the past two years, our average has been higher than the two years before that. That ain't progress. Especially if you look at the previous four years, 2006 to 2009:

DV 2006-2009

 

 

 

 

We're trying to think of what might have happened since 2008 to make it more difficult for the DFW region to attain a 1987 ozone standard at a time when emissions from just about every traditional source of smog pollution have been going down. Oh yeah, there was a huge natural gas field that opened up in the heart of the western part of the Metromess. But don't try telling the TCEQ that. They're convinced, absolutely convinced, that gas industry pollution couldn't possibly be responsible for any lack of progress in DFW air quality. Because hey, there hasn't been any lack of progress, and even if there wasn't, it wouldn't be due to the thousands of new gas sources. They're as sure of this as they are about their new computer model. Which is why the rest of us should keep an open mind.

TCEQ is hoping that coming close is good enough for EPA, that they can take advantage of something called "weight of evidence" that says that a clean air plan's parts are larger than its actual numerical sum and EPA reasonably expects the thing to succeed despite not all monitors hitting 74 ppb or below by 2018. In this way, Austin once again hopes to avoid any discussion about new control measures. But that's hanging your hat on a very precarious hook, given the agency's poor prognostication, and the EPA may demand a larger margin of safety.   

In fact, an honest review of TCEQ's track record for past DFW clean air plans would necessarily place the "weight of evidence" in this new one on the agency itself to show that they'll get at least 10 ppb or more below the 75 standard just to make sure they come close to achieving compliance.

Drilling in Dallas - floodplainMark your calendars now. According to City of Dallas materials published online Friday, the final council hearing and vote on a new gas drilling ordinance will take place Wednesday, December 11th.

We might have a better idea about the likely outcome of that vote after tomorrow's briefing to the council by staff on the City Plan Commission recommendations that were adopted back in September. That's scheduled to take place between 9 am and lunch according to the council's agenda. Observers will be listening carefully to the comments and questions of the Mayor and Council to discern whether there are eight solid votes to adopt what's widely considered to be one of the most progressive gas drilling ordinances in the Barnett Shale, or whether opponents will have an opening to rollback key provisions, starting with the 1500-foot setback.

Rumor has it that work is already being done by at least one or two council members to write amendments to the Plan Commission draft to do just that. This is industry's last stand and they aren't likely to sit n their hands. Expect at least three to five hardcore driller-friendly council members to try and mount a charge. But they need eight to win.

As we've already noted, this is all now coming down to whether Mayor Rawlings will keep his word and support the product of the Plan Commission, as he said he would during his late August Trinity East soliloquy. If he likes the draft as is, chances are that's what we'll see adopted on the 11th. If he wants to tinker with it, then he'll allow that. The problem with opening it up to itemized changes is that nobody can predict what changes will win and what changes will lose, or how long such an amending process might take for such a detailed document. Things could get very messy and long.

Downwinders will be at tomorrow's staff briefing, trying to read the tea leaves like everyone else. We'll have a summary by tomorrow afternoon or Thursday morning. Stay tuned.

Pipeline PlumeEvents like the gas pipeline explosion in Milford are graphic reminders of just how vulnerable our North Texas air shed is to pollution sources from Ellis County. Proximity, predominant wind patterns, and potential for disaster combine to make our Southern neighbor a constant threat.

On Thursday, one could see the plume of smoke stretch out south to north across the entire Metromess. It's a safe bet that not too many of the 6 million plus residents of greater DFW knew there was a town called Milford near them at the beginning of the day, but a lot of them had inhaled Milford soot by evening.

That would be the same soot that reporters keep reminding us "the EPA" says is "non-toxic," based on measurements. Except there is no such thing as non-toxic smoke from a combustion source, which the Milford explosion and fire most certainly was. All combustion produces soot, or Particulate Matter. According to the latest evidence from research scientists, there is no safe level of exposure to PM Pollution. That is, any amount of PM pollution can do human health damage. Even short-term exposure can lead to asthma attacks, heart attacks and strokes. How do we know this – the EPA tell us so on their own website.

Only a couple of years ago, the Magnablend fire in Waxahachie poured its own plume of "non-toxic" smoke into DFW skies, despite the incineration of a large variety of chemicals used in the oil and gas industry. You might remember the water run-off from fighting that fire went into a creek and killed a lot of fish. But don't worry, that same stuff in your lungs is nothing to worry about. Perfectly natural to be able to see what your breathing.

Perhaps the most spectacular modern reminder of how close Ellis County is to us in air miles came back in 1995 when a Midlothian-based tire dump, called…wait for it…."Safe Tire Disposal Company" that was actually a collection site for the nearby cement plant tire-burning operation caught fire its own self.

There are fires, and then there are tire fires. They burn extremely hot, produce a lot of that "non-toxic" smoke, and can keep going for days. And that's exactly what happened in Midlothian. The predominant southerly winds carried all that dark dense smoke right into Downtown Dallas, where it surrounded and engulfed whole office buildings.

Timing is everything and so it was with the Safe Tire Fire. It happened at the exact moment when local citizens were engaged in very public debate  with state and local officials over whether air pollution from the three large cement plants in Midlothian (two of which were burning tires) could impact air quality in DFW. You read that correctly. In 1995, citizens were still trying to make the case that millions of pounds of air pollution released just across the Dallas and Tarrant County lines could possibly have a negative impact on metropolitan smog levels. And it was an uphill fight. Officially, there was no confirmation of the impact of these facilities. The DFW air plan stopped at the County Line. Unofficially, you could see the cement plant smokestacks as you drove I-20 across Grand Prairie and Arlington. 

When those tires went up in smoke, so did the arguments being used to downplay the impact of Ellis County pollution. It was like adding a dark black dye to the North Texas air flow, beginning in Midlothian, and watching it be carried downstream/downwind right into the heart of downtown Dallas. It was the most defiant demonstration of the citizen's arguments one could imagine. After that, it was a lot easier for everyone to understand Midlothian was only a breeze away from their lungs. 

With yet another fire in Ellis County setting off yet another dark, thick plume of smoke that wafts into DFW, we get a reminder of how much closer together the air brings us. Only about half an hour or so away from Milford, a little bit further south, is a new belt of natural gas compressors churning out voluminous amounts of air pollution that's being blown in the same direction as the smoke from that gas pipeline explosion. Unlike that smoke, pollution from these facilities will keep being released 24/7 for the foreseeable future. Add up all this new compressor pollution and it could rival the impact of a new coal plant – just upwind of us. Just because you can't see it doesn't mean it's not having an impact.

Once again, the state's position is that this pollution is no big deal. Once again, citizens are disagreeing. Who would you put your money on?

Results from on-site testing at Saturdays’ Community Lead Clean-Up in Frisco shows volunteers collected battery chips from the city’s Grand Park that had up to 5000 ppm of lead on them, making them “extremely hazardous” by government standards.

Saturday’s event marked the first time citizens have done their own testing of the battery chips and slag waste that’s been flowing off of the Exide lead smelter site into Stewart Creek for years. The smelter site sits just upstream of the creek’s mile-long passage through the city’s 300-acre Grand Park.     

Using a portable RXF analyzer at the Clean-Up’s Saturday headquarters on Frisco Square, Dallas-area technician Dean Lovvorn confirmed that at least two of the dozens of chips brought in by volunteers contained 3000-5000 parts per million of lead. The clean-up standard for lead in soil is 250 ppm.

Volunteers reported that there were battery chips on every gravel bar they passed on their half-mile trek up Stewart Creek from the southern boundary of Grand Park bordering Stonebrook Parkway, and they often found chips planted in the creek bed itself. Ironically, city plans call for this particular area of the creek to become the  "natural creek corridor" when the park is fully developed.

Although their effort lasted less than a day, Frisco Unleaded volunteers have already removed more contamination from Stewart Creek and Grand Park than the city, state or federal government had in two years of investigation. The waste is being isolated from the environment in the sample bags it was collected in and will be turned over to the authorities when an off-site disposal option is established.

Frisco Unleaded members are asking the city to request enough money from Exide’s bankruptcy court to completely clean-up the smelter site and all of Stewart Creek. In contrast, the city is only putting in a claim for enough money to pay for burying the waste on-site in Frisco, and doesn’t even attempt to pay for the clean-up of the Creek.

Let's be clear. This is a city park with a contaminated creek flowing right down the middle of it. There’s no fencing. There are no warning signs about the presence of toxic levels of lead in and near the creek. There’s nobody but citizens actually removing contamination from the creek. And yet Frisco City hall will not ask that Exide pay to clean up its waste. Truly mystifying.

Texas cut out and crazyMany of you have already seen the increasingly urgent pleas from the usual suspects for people to show up at this Thursday's national EPA "Listening Session" on new emission standards for Greenhouse Gas pollution. Try to ignore the New Age-by-way-of-George-Orwell alternative name for a public hearing, and the industry-friendly "listening" schedule of 10 am to 3 pm, and concentrate on the fact this is one of only a handful of such sessions taking place nationwide, and it's in Texas, our Texas.

Like it or not, public health-minded residents of DFW have the burden of showing up to national hearings like this just to prove we exist. Nobody expects there to be an viable environmental movement in the Belly of the Beast, especially outside Austin. However hard we work to change that image, it's still a popular one and in this case, it hits entirely too close to home. Because Texas is the world capitol for carbon pollution. We're Numero Uno, A Number 1. We're living in the barrel of the gun that's pointed right at the planet's head.

EPA recently reported that Texas released more GHG pollution in 2012 than the next two states – Indiana and Pennsylvania –  combined. We're responsible for a full 12.5 % of the entire US annual total, almost 400 million metric tons of the stuff, ever year. Just take a look at the difference between us and the other 49.

Then use this handy-dandy EPA map of incredibly large sources of GHG pollution in the US. It allows you to zoom down to what's in each county of each state. Look at all the sources around DFW. Most are also large sources of other kinds of pollution. We're living in a sea of pollution created by these facilities.

So when EPA decides to schedule its one and only listening session in Texas on new rules to reduce this kind of pollution from some of the biggest sources in our own backyard, we need to show up because we're a disproportionate part of the problem.

We also need to be there because industry will be there, in force. The old TXU really wants to keep its obsolete, lignite-burning East and Central Texas coal plants running without any of these modern pollution control contraptions. Doesn't matter if they're aimed at Particulate Matter, or smog-forming pollution or GHGs, they just don't want them. You can bet they'll be bringing in folks from those coal plants to say what a terrible economic cost it would impose on the host communities and the company, and how it'll put the entire statewide grid in peril.

Someone has to be there to balance that testimony by pointing out that the economic, public health, and environmental impacts of this pollution reach far beyond Limestone County, Texas or even the US, and need to be considered on the agency's balance sheet as well.

Every yahoo with Americans for Prosperity, or other industry astroturf groups will be there because these kinds of national forums to bash Obama's energy policies are what they live for – and it's the only thin they do halfway competently. Likewise for the industry-aligned Freedom Works branch of the Tea Party.

And does someone want to start an office pool on how many Republican primary candidates will be appearing, trying to outflank each other on their Right? Expect to see and hear a lot about  "Obama's War Against Coal" on Thursday. It's Texas.

Which is why even if you're not a fan of this Administration, you have to recognize that the first attempt to regulate greenhouse gases from coal plants should be encouraged, in Texas. It's a foot in the door to do more effective things, to start talking about GHG regulations in a serious way. It establishes a precedent. And that is what industry fears the most.  You don't have to like the EPA to understand that the enemy of your enemy is your friend in this fight. And did we mention it's in Texas?

Finally, we just emerged from an ozone season that was mild by recent standards – but still harsh enough to keep us in violation of the old 1997 smog standard. We know the East and Central Texas power plants contribute to DFW's air quality problems. These new carbon regulations EPA is considering for existing power plants have the potential to reduce a variety of air pollution, not just GHGs. We know Austin and TCEQ are going to be of no help in addressing these sources in the next DFW clean air plan. If reductions are going to happen, they're going to have to be driven by the EPA, local governments, or the marketplace. We can't let this opportunity for meaningful reductions and better air pass us by.  If for no other reason, you need to show up on Thursday and say you support the EPA's regulation of these facilities because you've given up on Texas doing so.

For lots of reason, it's in your own self interest to attend this thing, even if you real passion is gas field pollution, or smog, or cement plants or whatever. A victory in this category of regulation is a victory for all of us involved in clean air issues. And it's Texas.

National EPA "listening session" on carbon limits for existing coal plants
THIS Thursday, November 7,
10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
1st Floor Auditorium, J. Erik Jonsson Dallas Central Library, 1515 Young Street, Dallas, TX (map)

DFW 2013 map of ozone DVs(Dallas)— On the eve of constructing yet another DFW clean air plan, the 2013 Ozone Season ended on Thursday the same way the previous 16 have ended: with North Texas out of compliance with the 1997 federal clean air standard.

Even a mild summer with lower temperatures and more rain couldn't save the numbers from exceeding an illegal three-year running average of 85 parts per billion at monitors in Keller and Grapevine.

According to Jim Schermbeck with the clean air group Downwinders at Risk, what makes this year’s violation particularly troublesome is that the 1997 standard has been replaced with a more protective one that's 10 ppb lower. For the next DFW air plan to succeed, it will have to reduce smog to levels that no DFW monitors have ever recorded. I don’t know anyone outside of Austin who thinks the state is up to that task.” 

That new plan has its official kick-off event next Tuesday, November 5th, beginning at 9am in Arlington at the Council of Governments Headquarters. It's the first briefing from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality on the computer model it will be using to base the plan on. Everything about one of these plans is based on such a computer model, a model only the state can run. The plan must be submitted to EPA by June of 2015.

Even though extremely high ozone numbers were rarer this year, there were enough bad air days to cause the running averages of 10 out of 17 monitors, called "design values" to rise – not the kind of trend you want when you're next task is complying with a tougher standard.

Schermbeck was particularly concerned about a monitor near Mockingbird and I-35 in Central Dallas that’s seen its ozone average rise dramatically for three years in a row. “This is a monitor that had a "design value" of 67 parts per billion in 2010 – that is, it was in compliance with the new 75 ppb standard just three years ago. But now it’s up to 84 ppb and almost out of compliance with the 1997 standard. That's quite an increase in three years, and in a place where smog hasn’t been a problem for awhile.

Every monitor inside the DFW metro area and even most "rural" monitors had a design value above the new standard of 75 ppb. Only Kaufman and Greenville made it under the wire, barely, with readings of 74 ppb.

As usual, the worst ozone levels were found in the northwest quadrant of the DFW area. This is a well-known historical pattern caused by the predominant southeast to northwest winds that blow pollution from the coast up through the coal and gas patches of East and Central Texas, over the Midlothian Industrial Complex and North Texas central urban cores into Northwest Tarrant Wise and Denton counties

This pattern has been the target of the last three state clean air plans, but has never been overcome.  Schermbeck noted that last clean air plan to make a dent was the 2006 effort that produced lower numbers in steady fashion. Since 2008 however, air quality that was supposed to be getting better has gotten worse, or stagnated.

While cars have gotten cleaner during this time, and pollution from cement and coal plants has been reduced, there's one "source category" of pollution that's increased significantly since 2008: the gas industry. 

In submitting the last DFW air plan to EPA in 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality estimated there were more tons of smog-forming Volatile Organic Compounds being released by the gas industry in the official DFW "non-attainment area" than by all the cars and trucks on the road combined. That wasn't true in 2008.

Moreover, this is new air pollution in a smog non-attainment area that doesn't have to be off-set by reductions in pollution elsewhere in DFW. Unlike every other large industry, the gas industry is exempt from this offset requirement of the Clean Air Act.

Denton's Airport monitor's 4th highest reading of 85 ppb this summer, the one that officially counts toward its running average, was the highest such reading in the entire state, including Houston.

There's no doubt Denton is in the middle of the local gas patch, as are the Keller and Grapevine monitors that had the highest design values this year. Given the decreases in pollution from other categories, are gas patch emissions keeping these numbers from coming down they way they were supposed to? Austin keeps saying no, but the evidence is compelling.

Just last year there was a study out of Houston showing how a single flare or compressor station could significantly impact local ozone levels by as much as 5 or 10 ppbs. TCEQ itself just produced a study this last summer showing how Eagle Ford Shale gas pollution is increasing ozone levels in San Antonio.

Local Barnett Shale gas pollution might explain these Tarrant and Denton county monitors' problems, but they don't explain the rise in numbers of the Dallas monitors, since the wind during ozone season comes in from the south to southeast.

What new pollution is coming from that direction? Gas industry pollution from numerous compressor stations and processing plants stations in Freestone, Anderson, Limestone and other counties just about 90 to 100 miles south-southeast of Dallas. If one adds up all the emissions these facilities are allowed under their "standard permits." it exceeds the pollution from coal plants like Big Brown. That's a huge hit from sources that weren't there 10 years ago.

In effect, DFW is getting squeezed between gas pollution being produced in the middle of its urban areas, and gas pollution blowing in from the south.

“Officials with Rick Perry's TCEQ would rather drink lye than admit gas pollution is causing smog problems for DFW” says Schermbeck, but such an admission might be the only way to bring DFW into compliance with the Clean Air Act.” 

“This is why local DFW municipal and county governments serious about air quality must divorce themselves from Austin's politicized science and begin to seek their own solutions. Austin really isn't interested in solving DFWs chronic smog problems. Heck, the Commissioners who run TCEQ don't even believe smog IS a health problem.”