Last week, the EPA made an important admission.
"Methane emissions from the oil and gas industry are significantly higher than previous official estimates, according to draft revisions of the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions inventory released Monday by the Environmental Protection Agency. At 9.3 million metric tons, revised estimates of 2013 emissions are 27% percent higher than the previous tally. Over a 20-year timeframe, those emissions have the same climate impact as over 200 coal-fired power plants."
This most recent analysis jives with other studies like the one from UTA/EDF that found Barnett Shale facilities leaking up to 50% more methane than previously estimated. In reaction to the information, EPA Chief Administrator Gina McCarthy was quoted as saying "we need to do more" to cut methane pollution.
In its last year in office the Obama administration is finally grasping that natural gas isn't the climate change wunderkind its promoters claimed and last week's announcement is the tacit admission they need to do more to crack down on oil and gas.
What has that got to do with DFW in 2016?
By Spring, the Regional office of the EPA is expected to announce that it has rejected the State's clean air plan for DFW in regard to its application of "Reasonably Available Control Technology." That means the state hasn't required the application of readily-available air pollution controls for major sources the way the Clean Air Act demands. Specifically, EPA staff have cited the failure of the state to lower the emission standards for the Midlothian cement kilns to reflect more modern technology. But it's not the only area where Texas fell short. There are no new pollution requirements for any oil and gas facilities in the state's plan either.
EPA rejection of the Technology section of the state's DFW air plan would mean the EPA would begin to draft its own clean air plan for the region. An EPA-drafted plan gives local citizens concerned about the health impacts of fracking an opportunity to persuade the Agency to use the plan to crack down on smog-forming Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) pollution in the Barnett Shale by requiring lower emission standards on all aspects of drilling and production.
While methane isn't considered a smog pollutant, it doesn't get emitted by itself. It comes out of a stack or valve, or leaks from a pipeline combined with smog-forming VOCs. So the more you control VOC pollution, the more you control methane pollution.
In light of last week's announcement, this gives EPA an extra incentive to go after VOC emissions in DFW even though the conventional wisdom is that it's combustion-generated Nitrogen Oxide pollution that really makes DFW smog so bad.
BTW, that conventional wisdom is under attack because the worst-performing air monitoring sites in North Texas are all in the Barnett Shale and heavily influenced by pollution from oil and gas facilities – both NOX and VOCs. It's possible to imagine a strategy to get smog numbers down in DFW solely by application of oil and gas emission regulations that can impact these important monitors – which drive the entire region's fate – even if the new regs have minimal impact on monitors elsewhere.
What kind of new regulations are we talking about?
* Start with the electrification of all 650 large natural gas compressors in the 10-county area.
* Do the same thing for all drilling rigs in the same 10-county area – nothing but electric.
* Emission standards for tanks and pipelines that reflect the latest leak-detection technology.
Inclusion of new EPA “Control Technique Guidelines" which are part of Agency's new methane rules. According to the Agency's release on the the new rules, “…reduction of VOC emissions will be very beneficial in areas where ozone levels approach or exceed the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone."
Under the new rules, areas like DFW that host large concentrations of gas pollution sources and are officially categorized as “non-attainment” for smog receive "an analysis of the available, cost-effective technologies for controlling VOC emissions from covered oil and gas sources."
There's one more reason EPA has an incentive to go looking for all the cuts in oil and gas pollution it can find in the 10-county DFW non-attainment area: after the cement kilns, there's no other major sources the Agency can target locally.
Because while it has the authority in a federal clean air plan to regulate all pollution sources in that 10-county DFW non-Attainment area, the EPA can't write new emission standards for the East Texas coal plants located 100 miles outside of that 10-county area – even though those coal plants have more of an impact on North Texas smog than any other source of pollution. EPA (and us) can put pressure on the state to address these dinosaurs, but it can't touch them through a DFW air plan.
EPA staff has estimated it will take a cut of 100-200 TONS PER DAY in local smog-forming Nitrogen Oxide pollution for DFW reach the current 75 parts per billion smog standard. The State's "plan" – i.e. the federal gasoline fuel changes it relies on – only represents a 20-40 tons per day cut.
Where do the other 60 -160 tons a day in cuts come from?
To give you some idea of the size of that gap, the state estimates that all on and off road vehicles in the 10-county area will emit 161 tons per day of NOx in 2018.
State-of-the-art controls on all the cement plants might give you up to 15 tons a day. Electrification of the large compressors, another 15-16 tons per day eventually. After that it gets hard to find large volumes of cuts without the coal plants. And this is why the EPA should give cuts in VOC/methane a longer look than they have before – they're concentrated in the same areas where the region's worst-performing monitors are and they represent a huge source of climate change pollution that could also be another skin on the wall in addition to lowering smog levels.
There's no question the passage of HB40 has stymied grassroots progress toward more protective regulation of fracking by municipal governments in the Barnett Shale. It's thrown what was a fairly successful local movement into disarray. To date, there doesn't appear to be any consensus about strategies to combat the effects of the legislation.
But a way to outflank some of the impacts of HB 40 coming is coming down the pike, and it offers local fracktivists an opportunity to rally round a common, achievable goal – lowering emission levels across the board in the Barnett Shale. We can overlay a larger, stricter regional template for oil and gas regulation in place of 100 separate municipal ones.
What better way to nullify the efforts of the nullifiers in Austin?
Don't look now, but Michael ("never met a freeway proposal I didn't like") Morris, the long-time Director of Transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, has gotten a case of the Vapors.
Was it some new threat to the Trinity Tollroad that sent Mr. Morris into a tizzy? Some "regional mobility" crisis?
No, nothing as small-minded as those examples.
Instead it's the "vulgar" language used by DFW residents in the state's public hearing on its new do-nothing air plan on January 21st that makes Mr Morris so darn mad he feels he has to apologize to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for it in a letter last month.
You see the hearing took place at NCTCOG headquarters in Arlington, in the COG conference room Mr. Morris uses to rule his freeway fiefdom from as the force behind the Regional Transportation Council.
We suspect that almost everyone official, including Mr. Morris, thought it would be another dreary affair when the conference room was offered up as a hearing space. But citizens had other ideas. After 20 years of failure, they weren't in any mood to accept another "plan" from the state that required no new pollution controls on any sources. They were mad as hell, and they weren't going to take it anymore.
No question more than one person uttered words and phrases you will not hear in Church. These were intentional and meant to shock everyone out of official complacency in another just-going-through-the-motions regulatory exercise. Commentators were following the advice of John Maynard Keynes: "Picturesque language, used right, serves an important purpose. Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking."
"Unthinking" is a generous way to describe the State's air plan.
Far from being "meaningless," as Morris' letter to the TCEQ asserts, the use of "bad words" at the hearing on the 21st was packed with decades of frustration. They meant something precisely because they had never been uttered before in such a place by people who had worked in good faith for so long on DFW's chronic smog problem. They meant something because citizens realize they no longer have anything to lose in calling out the State for its shamelessness. It meant something because the story that was told by employees the next day at TCEQ HQ in Austin and EPA HQ in Dallas was not the usual script for these things, but how badly the State got its ass kicked, and how genuinely angry the crowd was that nothing was being done about DFW bad air – again.
"Bad words" put an exclamation point on a problem. They can also unmask the Killing-Us-Softly language and protocol the TCEQ uses to make decisions that harm the public health. They pull back the curtain and give a more accurate, if less polite, perspective. If some citizens were dropping F-bombs toward the TCEQ at the hearing, they were only giving as good as they were getting.
Because make no mistake about it, in the way the State has drafted and approved this plan, it's making it's own bold declaration of F*** YOU to EPA and seven million DFW breathers.
By conservative estimates, the State's air plan for DFW needed to cut up to 200 tons per day or more of smog-forming pollution to get the the current ozone standard by the deadline of 2017. Instead the state is submitting a plan that gets only 20-40 tons per day of cuts – all from a change in federal gasoline rules. The EPA had already warned Texas in writing that the plan didn't include new, lower emission limits for the Midlothian cement kilns, and this exclusion would mean the plan was not meeting the Clean Air Act. The State submitted the same plan anyway.
But there was no criticism of this obscene gesture in Morris' letter. Instead he says he looks forward to working in continued partnership with the TCEQ – a partnership which has produced five (going on six) failed air plans and over twenty years of non-compliance with the Clean Air Act. Huzzah.
And that's why citizens were right to call out the TCEQ the way they did on the 21st. Here's an agency, COG, that's nominally, but officially assigned the role of local consultants on air planning for seven million DFW residents, and it's taking a complete whiff on the State's clear-eyed strategy of nullifying the Clean Air Act. If it can't even bring itself to mildly criticize the state for submitting a plan that's, you know, both unworkable and illegal, what other choice do citizens have but to scream bloody murder at the top of their lungs?
We're proud to have played a part in making DFW a hostile work environment for the political hacks who now run and staff the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. They don't deserve to have an easy time of it. They should fear being run out on a rail or verbally tarred and feathered every time they make an appearance here. It's the only way citizens have to effectively show how they feel about a government that not only isn't listening, but has no interest in listening.
It's also activity protected by the First Amendment, a technicality that Morris seems like he's desperate to address for fear of his conference room being sullied by another severe outbreak of democracy.
And that's the thing about Morris' response. He's very concerned about the bad words. Not so much about the bad air.
You could put all the F-bombs dropped on the 21st on hundreds of billboards next to schools, and churches, and Mr. Morris' beloved freeways, where thousands would see and be offended by them. You could broadcast them over a loud speaker going through "nice" neighborhoods. You could open a website devoted to nothing but evangelizing their use or a cable channel that repeated them 24/7. You could assault people from every direction with bad words every waking minute of their day, and you'd still be doing less harm to the public than even one more month of dirty air courtesy of the state, and Mr. Morris's silence.
As for those citizens who were there on the 21st to give the start a hide tanning it deserved, maybe they were taking Jane Jacobs lesson to heart: "We had been ladies and gentlemen and only got pushed around."
Notice came on Friday that the Dallas Morning News had finally decided to fill the environmental beat reporter position left vacant by Randy Lee Loftis' departure. The lucky winner was announced via a response to a reader's comment on a story about the Lake Lewisville BLM fracking lease sale.
"This is just one more reason the Morning News needs an environmental beat reporter," wrote the reader.
"That would be me," replied reporter Jeff Mosier, whose debut under his new job title was that day's story on the BLM fracking lease.
Shortly after, Mosier sent out this "job status" tweet with picture of the Lake Lewisville story, "My debut as environmental writer for
@dallasnews. I'll spend more time at landfills than Super Bowls now"
That's a reference to Mosier's stint as a DMN SportsDay reporter covering the Cowboys on and off since at least 2004. Texas environmental politics is definitely a contact sport, but that's not the reason he was picked. He's a News journeyman who came to the paper with a lot of other former Times Herald employees in 1994 and rose through the ranks on a number of different beats. Here's a sampling of his coverage of Dallas City Hall goings-on. So local politics is not a foreign subject matter.
More on point, he was writing for the News' Tarrant County/Fort Worth Bureau in the early stages of the citizen backlash to urban drilling in the Barnett Shale. He's familiar with the issues surrounding fracking and wrote about them from roughly 2009 to 2013. Some examples:
From all previous indications, it looked like the News was grooming long-time Educational Reporter Jeffery Weiss to take Loftis' place. Weiss covered the unveiling of Downwinders' UNT Ozone Study and Dr. Robert Haley's Public Health Cost Study back in October, as well as the subsequent Dallas County Commissioners' resolution on reducing pollution from obsolete East Texas coal plants. But apparently Weiss is being put in charge of Energy coverage for the paper.
These moves are all part of a large shake-up of the entire Morning News newsroom as the paper tries to make the on-going rocky transition from print to digital. Lofttis' retirement could have been seen as a chance to do some necessary belt-tightening at the expense of a hunk of coverage. To the paper's credit, it resisted that temptation and named a new environmental beat reporter.
While Mosier's not a complete neophyte, he faces a steep learning curve. Give him some slack as he begins to reacquaint himself with The Way Things Really Work, and let's see if he can provide the public with needed clear-eyed reports from the front.
Can you even remember the last time you received a DFW political mailer that spoke about the value of air that won't make you sick or kill you, much less a whole piece devoted to the subject? Neither can we. That's what makes this mailer from incumbent Dallas County Commissioner Dr. Theresa Daniel so welcome.
In an oversized 9 x11 mailer that went to 5 to 6000 households in District 1, under the headline, "Clean Air. It's Worth Fighting For," Daniel states, "Our region is failing to meet emissions standards. It's a public health issue. It's a cost issue to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. We are doing something about it by fighting for air quality."
On the back are four – count 'em – four paragraphs discussing the recent UNT local air quality study Downwinders sponsored, as well as Dr. Robert Haley's associated examination of the costs of dirty air, and the County Court resolution sponsored by Daniel last November asking the judge overseeing the Energy Future Holdings (Texas Utilities) bankruptcy case to clean-up the company's old East Texas lignite coal plants due to their large impact on DFW smog.
This pairing of issue to elected official is a consequence of Downwinders' Ozone Attainment Project, which produced the UNT study, but also put together a committee of local leaders to oversee it. Former Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher chaired it. During her time in office about a decade ago, Keliher was the most influential local leader on air quality. She rode roughshod over what is now seen as the most effective clean air plan in DFW's two-decade old struggle to meet clean air standards – the one that came closest to working, however fleetingly. With her institutional knowledge of the issues and process, one of the co-benefits of Judge Keliher chairing our UNT study committee was being able to mentor a new generation of local elected officials on air quality.
Commissioner Daniel was one of the most active and vocal members of that committee. By her own admission, she didn't know a lot about air quality at the beginning, but she kept coming to the committee briefings and learning. Over the last year, she's become more confident in her understanding of the DFW dirty air narrative, to the point of now leading meetings with other officials.
Daniel and her fellow Project Committee member Dallas County Councilwoman Sandy Greyson have become a new dynamic duo for the cause of regional air quality. They represent a brand new wave of local leadership on the issue – one that has been sorely lacking even as DFW sunk deeper into chronic dirty air thanks to a state government that doesn't think smog is that big of a deal. You may remember that Greyson testified at the recent Arlington hearing on the State's do-nothing smog plan, and Daniel sent her Chief of Staff to speak. Had they not served on the Keliher/UNT Committee, it's likely neither would have even known about the event.
Even as they become more active, they're drawing more of their peers into the discussion – County Commissioners and City Council members in other parts of the "non-attainment area." For the first time in this decade, clean air has some serious advocates at the local level
Downwinders had a plan. We wanted to take away the state's exclusive power over the model that drives all the clean air decisions for the region and educate elected officials about the importance of winning the fight over chronic smog. We not only got an unprecedented study that used the State's own data to contradict it's conclusions about no new controls needed – we got at least two strong elected officials as new advocates for the cause that were in on that exercise from the beginning.
We didn't know Commissioner Daniel was going to send this mailer out, but it's one more beneficial side effect of grinding things out on a local level.
This plan won't work.
That's the simple message from the three pages of new comments Region 6 EPA staff submitted to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality last month concerning its anti-smog plan for DFW.
That message begins with the cover letter, written by Mary Stanton, Chief of the State Implementation Plan Section for Region 6. "… additional local and regional ozone precursor emission reductions will be necessary to reach attainment by 2017."
How much in reductions? EPA estimates an additional 100-200 tons per day more in cuts of smog-forming pollution will be necessary to achieve compliance with the current 75 parts per billion ozone standard. "Without emission reductions on this scale, it is unlikely that the area will attain by the attainment date.”
To give you some idea of how large a number that is, TCEQ calculates that all gas and oil air pollution in DFW equals 78 tons per day, the Midlothian cement plants belch out over 18 tons per day, and all the power plants in the immediate DFW area, 21 tons per day. Totaled, those three sources add up to 117 tons of pollution a year.
All the cars and trucks on DFW roads are said to add up to 180 tons per day of pollution.
So the decrease in pollution EPA is saying is necessary to get down to the current ozone standard is huge.
But take a look at those obsolete East Texas coal plants outside the boundaries the DFW nonattainment area. TCEQ says they account for a total of 146 tons per day. Add Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) which can get you up to 90% reductions in coal plant emissions, or close them down completely, add decreases from new controls on the cement kilns and oil and gas sources, and you're well on your way to amassing 200 tons a day of cuts in pollution.
Which do you think is more attractive to most DFW residents: permanently parking their cars, or putting new controls on the coal plants? Even though the coal plants harm the whole DFW airshed more than any other major source, they're not held accountable to the same regulatory requirements as sources closer to the center of the urban core, but which have less impact. Our cars must have special gasoline formulas in summer, we have to have HOV lanes, and we still go through Ozone Action Days, but the coal plants party like it's 1979. TCEQ is taking a hands-off approach to the plants and as a result the DFW region will continue to be in violation of the smog standard or huge cuts from other sources will be necessary.
TCEQ could have added new controls to the coal plants to the plan, but it chose not to. In fact, there are no new controls in the state's plan on any major sources of air pollution affecting DFW. EPA's new comments go to the heart of that choice. "Without additional emission reduction measures, we don’t see how the area will meet the standard of 75 ppb by the end of the 2017 ozone season," writes EPA staff.
EPA goes on to say TCEQ's computer modeling supporting it's do-nothing plan is "unrealistic," severely underestimating future smog levels, and delivering projections of decreases "that seem unlikely to be reached."
With this stance, EPA seems poised to reject this "attainment demonstration" part of the air plan as being insufficient. But it must wait to see how TCEQ responds to EPA comments about its modeling shortcomings and need for new cuts when the state officially submits its plan this July. Then, and ony then can the Agency approve or disapprove. We're going out on a limb here and predicting TCEQ won't change a thing, thus inviting EPA disapproval.
That's the pattern TCEQ has already established with its "screw you" response to the EPA's comments about the part of the plan dealing with "Reasonably Available Control Technology," or RACT, last February. This second part decides what new controls should be required of major sources of air pollution within the 10-County DFW "non-attainment" area – like the Midlothian cement plants and the thousands of oil and gas facilities checkerboarding the western half of the Metromess.
TCEQ says nothing new is required. EPA disagrees. EPA told TCEQ last year it had to do a new RACT review and lower the kiln's emission limits to account for a new generation of technology or it would have to reject the state's plan. TCEQ ignored the request, daring the EPA to disapprove. EPA seems more than willing to take them up on the offer.
And so while you're waiting for the state's computer modeling and suspect math to be rejected by EPA in July, you can probably expect to see EPA officially rejecting the RACT part of the state's plan sooner – maybe as soon as the next 60-90 days.
Despite the TCEQ going out of its way to submit an unacceptable plan to EPA, if the Agency pulls the trigger and begins a federal takeover of the DFW air plan, the Commission and the whole of Texas State Government will cry bloody murder about the usurpation of the state's authority and once again proclaim how "out of control" the EPA is on their way to filing suit.
This is why the rowdy eruption of public sentiment for an EPA plan at the hearing in Arlington two weeks ago was so critical (Thank you again). It's also why we now have to be about the business of getting DFW local governments, hospitals and school districts to pass resolutions in favor of an EPA takeover. The Agency will need this kind of public support to counter all the criticism it will take from the Usual Suspects in Austin and DC. If you're interested in helping us pass one of these resolutions in your county, city, school or hospital district, please let us know at: email@example.com
And as always, it's why you, and people you know should: