For the first time since DFW began recording its smog levels, the region's three-year running average dipped below the 1997 eight-hour 85 parts per billion (ppb) standard. After years of leveling off at around 86-87, it's dropped to 81 ppb. That's good news.
DFW's decrease is attributed to 2011's terrible numbers rolling off the board and a wetter, cooler and windier summer than normal these last five months or so. As both drought-ridden 2011 and this year's results demonstrate, weather still plays an extremely critical role in how large or small our smog problem will be. Another summer or two like 2011 could easily put us back over the 1997 standard. More wet and cooler weather could see the decrease continue.
The news would be better except that we were supposed to have originally accomplished this milestone in 2009, then again last year after a second try, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).
As it is, we still haven't reached the current, more protective 2008 national standard that was revised downward to 75 ppb after a review of the scientific literature.
In January, TCEQ will host a public hearing on its proposed "plan" to EPA to meet that goal that predicts most, but not all DFW monitors will reach 75 ppb by the summer of 2018.
Despite overwhelming evidence that new controls on the Midlothian cement plants and the reduction of gas industry pollution could speed this achievement, TCEQ's new plan contains no new pollution control measures on any major sources of smog polluters – cement kilns, coal plants, gas sources – but instead relies on the federal adoption of a new lower-sulfur gasoline mix for on-road vehicles. Like past proposals by Rick Perry's TCEQ, this one depends solely on the feds to get them into compliance. TCEQ isn't lifting a regulatory finger to help.
And its new plan once again aims high, not low. At last count, there were at least three Tarrant and Denton County monitors that TCEQ admitted would still be above the 75 ppb standard at the end of 2018. "Close enough" is the reply from Austin.
From a public health perspective, it's even worse. Why does the ozone standard keep routinely going down? Because new and better evidence keeps accumulating to show widespread health problems at levels of exposure to smog that were once considered "safe." About every five years, the EPA's scientific advisory committee must assess the evidence and decide if a new standard needs to be enforced to protect public health.
For most of the last ten years, the position of this independent panel of scientists is that the standard should be somewhere between 60 and 70 ppb. They were ignored in 2008. They were ignored in 2011. They once again came to this conclusion last May. What was the evidence that persuaded them? That the current 75 ppb standard for smog causes almost 20% of children in "non-attainment areas" to have asthma attacks, and leads to hundreds of thousands of deaths every year. Cutting the standard to 60 ppb reduces those deaths by 95%. Since the Clean Air Act states the EPA is duty bound to set a smog standard protective of human health, 60 ppb seems to be the threshold level that the current scientific literature says is actually safe for the majority of the population most vulnerable to the impact of bad air. By contrast, a smog level of 70 ppb only reduces those deaths by 50%. (Policy Assessment for the Review of the Ozone National Ambient Air Quality Standard, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Air and Radiation, Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards, Health and Environmental Impacts Division, Ambient Standards Group, August 2014)
By December 1st, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy must decide whether to officially recommend a standard in that 60-70 ppb range. It looks as though this time, the EPA might just endorse what the scientists are recommending, although it's unclear whether it'll be the upper or lower part of that range.
So even while the TCEQ is saying it's "close enough" to achieving the 75 ppb standard left over from George W's administration by 2018, the evidence is that level is too high to prevent large public health harms and must be lowered. A lot.
This is why it's so infuriating that the TCEQ is satisfied with getting only "close enough" to a 2008 standard that's about to become obsolete. Austin knows it could demand better air pollution control measures on the market right now that would accelerate the decrease in smog. It knows the pubic health would benefit from requiring such measures. But it's willing to condemn DFW children and others at risk for many more years for the sake of keeping its "business-friendly" reputation.
And while this year's slip below the 85 ppb standard is a sign of some progress, it remains true that DFW still has the worst air in Texas – a title we took from Houston years ago. Take a look at the chart summarizing the 2014 ozone season across Texas. Despite the nicer weather, DFW still had almost twice as many readings above 75 ppb as Houston and four above the 85 ppb standard. Houston had no readings above 85. In fact, San Antonio was the only other city to record a level so high – once.
DFW still has a smog problem and all it takes is another hot and dry summer to see it escalate. We need the help more controls on major sources could give us. We need Selective Catalytic Reduction on ALL the Midlothian cement and East Texas coal plants. We need electrification of gas compressors in the Barnett Shale. This should be the message to both the TCEQ and EPA during the public hearing in January.
DFW smog in 2014: we've met the Clinton era standard for now, on the way to trying to get "close enough" to the W Standard, and still very far from a new Obama standard. Don't hang up the gas mask yet.
When explaining how the powers of state government are distributed under the Texas Constitution, the emphasis is usually on how powerful the Lt. Governor is and how weak the Governor actually is – a leftover from the Confederate backlash to Reconstruction.
But that explanation usually assumes a traditional two-term governor, not one who takes up residency for 14 years.
In the past it was hard for any one Texas governor to put their personal stamp on so many state agencies so deeply because they were out after four to eight years and the terms of the appointments were staggered. Multi-member commissions were a mix of appointees from different administration, representing different government philosophies and parties. This made compromise a necessity.
And then came Rick Perry.
After 14 years, he's not only been able to appoint all the top level decision-makers in all of the state's various agencies and commissions, he's been able to go down two to three layers deep in each bureaucracy and make sure those mid-level officeholders reflect the same views. Compromise is no longer necessary. Through this process, he's assembled more power than perhaps any other Texas governor in history.
Even if Wendy Davis were to win next month, it would take many years to replace Perry's choices for all of the state agencies that affect Texans on a daily basis. Some don't expire until 2019. And Davis would have to win approval for each appointment from what is shaping up to be the most business-friendly state senate Texas has seen since Spindletop.
Recently, the Austin American Statesman reviewed over 8,000 Perry appointments, and found:
Nearly 4 in 5 Perry appointees are white, even as the portion of whites in the state dropped from 55 percent in 2000 shortly before Bush left office to 44 percent in 2010. Overall, 77 percent of his appointees have been white, and 67 percent are male.
Perry has appointed 90 of his former employees to boards and commissions, placing trusted lieutenants in the upper echelons of government agencies. Twenty-three of those one-time governor’s office workers were given paid appointments.
Nearly a quarter of appointees are donors to Perry’s campaigns, together giving more than $20 million. That constitutes a fifth of all contributions he has received during his time as governor.
No agency reflects Perry's these trends more thoroughly than the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
Zac Covar, white and male, was a Perry aide, who then became an assistant to the TCEQ Chairman appointed by Perry, who then became Executive Director of the TCEQ, who then became one of three Commissioners himself. He's also a fellow Aggie, graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Poultry Science from Texas A&M University, making him imminently qualified to help run the largest environmental agency in the free world outside of the EPA. His term expires next year.
Commissioner Toby Baker, white and male, was another Perry aide, and another fellow Aggie, with a degree in Public Administration. His term expires in 2017.
Chairman Bryan Shaw, white and male, is still another fellow poultry science degreed graduate of A&M, although you be hard-pressed to discover that in his official job description now days (two chicken scientists ruling the TCEQ coop seems to be an embarasment that even shames the Perryites). Since he was last appointed in 2013, his six-year term won't be up until 2019.
It's not only the top administrators at TCEQ who are full-fledged mini-mes of Perry. It's also the agency's Chief Engineer Susana M. Hildebrand, who's been known to flat out lie to Legislative Committees about the inconvenient results of studies that don't reflect the hardcore pro-leave-industry-alone views of the Perry Administration. It's the TCEQ's Chief Toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt, who keeps insisting that smog really isn't that bad for you. And on and on.
The result of all this political in-breeding is an agency which is the largest purveyor of junk science in the state, taking every industry-financed "study" and promoting it as if it were gospel, even if it's in the extreme minority of scientific opinion, while discounting the overwhelming collection of independent academic reviews that contradicts it. That's how you arrive at the point where the state's major environmental agency says there's no such thing as climate change, no harm in smog, and the continuing release of millions of tons toxins are no big deal. That's how a month before Holcim decides to install SCR at its Midlothian cement plant, a representative of TCEQ can say straight faced in an Arlington regional air quality meeting that the technology "isn't technically feasible."
This is why many of the state's citizen groups have given up on anything useful coming out of Austin for the foreseeable future. They've decided that If change is going to happen in Texas it'll be at the local level, where Rick Perry's fingerprints have not yet smudged all reconciliation with reality. And that's exactly why recent local expressions of people power, like the Dallas drilling ordinance and the Denton fracking ban vote are such a threat to an otherwise watertight hegemony emanating from the Governor's office.
Rick Perry's minions at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) are drafting a new anti-smog plan for DFW this summer and fall. The only access DFW residents have to how it's being done and why are through periodical regional air quality meetings hosted by the Council of Governments in Arlington. At these meetings staff from TCEQ make presentations on why the air in DFW is getting so much better and why no new pollution control measures are needed to reach smog standards required by the Clean Air Act – despite the fact that the state is 0 for 5 in plans to attain compliance with those standards. In fact, the last such plan from Austin actually resulted in slightly higher levels of smog.
Tomorrow, Tuesday August 12th there will be another such regional air quality meeting. It's going on from 10 am to 12 noon at the Council of Government headquarters in Arlington at 616 Six Flags Road, right across from the amusement park (insert your own joke here). Of course, it's during business hours – you didn't think they're going to make it easy for the public to attend, did you?
Despite that, beginning in April more and more local residents have been showing up at these meetings to express their concern at the lack of progress in bringing safe and legal air to DFW. One of the reasons is that these meetings are the only forum available to citizens to question TCEQ staff in person – and then ask follow-up questions if you don't like the first answer. It's their only opportunity to be a kind of clean air Perry Mason and because it's a public meeting and everyone's looking at them, TCEQ staff have to at least make an attempt to answer those questions.
Things reached a high point at the last meeting in June when Downwinders and the Sierra Club were allowed to make their own presentations about why the state is falling down on its job. A roomful of concerned citizens and elected officials saw the case against the state was self-evident – all we had to do was quote from its own past press releases and memos to make our point.
Tomorrow's meeting is the first chance the state will have to give a rebuttal to those citizen group presentations. Staff will present all the reasons why we don't need new air pollution controls on the Midlothian cement plants, the gas industry, or the East Texas coal plants, and why another do-nothing anti-smog plan from Austin will be just dandy.
And so, if between inhaler bursts you ever wanted to quiz officials about Rick Perry's air pollution strategies, tomorrow's meeting is going to be your chance.
You may think you're not qualified, but you'd be wrong. Simple common sense questions are often the hardest ones for the TCEQ staff to answer, because you know, they're based on common sense, and so many of their policies aren't.
This is how citizens uncovered the fact that TCEQ was hiding oil and gas pollution in other categories not named oil and gas. This is how we got the TCEQ to release maps of where all the gas industry compressors in DFW are after first explaining there were no such maps. And so on.
All that you need is a curious mind. They're not prepared for those.
Tomorrow, 10 to 12 noon is your opportunity to show your concern about breathing bad air, your desire to see major industrial sources of pollution better controlled, and why you want these anti-smog plans to do more. Be there or keep breathing bad air.
Just last week at the June regional air quality planning meeting the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was bemoaning the fact that the weather too often determines how bad an "ozone season" DFW will have. And it's true. When we have really hot, dry, and windless summers, ozone levels soar as they did as recently as 2011-2012 when the recent drought seemed to reach its most awful heights in DFW. Conversely, when we have relatively cool, wet and windy summers, ozone levels abate, as they seem to be doing this year – at least so far.
Of course, the TCEQ spokesperson was using weather as an excuse why DFW hadn't yet achieved compliance with the 1997 ozone standard after two tries that fell short. Completely overlooked was the fact that the last state air plan for DFW in 2011 promised historically low ozone levels by 2013 without any new pollution controls on major sources of pollution. Combine that lack of action with a really hot, dry summer like we saw in 2011, and you get the first clean air plan ever to leave ozone levels higher after it ended than when it started.
That's why it's important to think about the weather when you're trying to build new clean air plans for DFW that stretch years into the future. Air quality planners have to ask themselves if between now and the next federal clean air plan deadline of 2018, will there be more summers like this seemingly anomalous one, or will they more like the summer of 2011 when we had a constant barrage of 100 degree plus days as early as March?
Currently, the TCEQ is using a stretch of bad air days from 2006 to predict ozone levels between now and 2018 in their computer model for the DFW air plan to comply with the new, tougher 2008 ozone standard. But 2006 was pre-drought. Although they say they're "adjusting" the meteorology to compensate for weather changes since then, do you really trust TCEQ to assume worst-case weather scenarios when they're still trying to hide the smog impacts of gas pollution from the public? Us either.
So it's with more than a little self-interest that we note a new Stanford study with the too-sexy title of "Occurrence and Persistence of Future Atmospheric Stagnation Events" concluding that the Western US, including Texas, should expect hotter and therefore smoggier summers thanks to climate change. Why? Because hotter temperatures will slow the flow of air around the globe. That means less wind, and less wind means more time for smog-forming chemicals to sit and bake in the hot sun and form harmful levels of ozone. Historically, most of our worst ozone days are when winds are blowing less than 5 mph – stagnate air.
DFW isn't like Denver or LA where mountains form bowls around the urban areas and trap pollution in inversions. But the new study concludes the impact from global warming could have the same effect on the Texas prairie by stagnating air currents:
"Our analysis projects increases in stagnation occurrence that cover 55% of the current global population, with areas of increase affecting ten times more people than areas of decrease. By the late twenty-first century, robust increases of up to 40 days per year are projected throughout the majority of the tropics and subtropics, as well as within isolated mid-latitude regions. Potential impacts over India, Mexico and the western US are particularly acute owing to the intersection of large populations and increases in the persistence of stagnation events, including those of extreme duration. These results indicate that anthropogenic climate change is likely to alter the level of pollutant management required to meet future air quality targets."
And who's more prepared to deal with the "pollution management required to meet future (re: tougher) air quality targets than the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality? Almost any one, including your 13-year old niece who's done so well in 8th grade science this year. Because not only is it the TCEQ's official position that smog isn't all that bad for you, but that there's really no such thing as climate change. It's why you should bring a boatload of skepticism to the computer model that's driving the currently proposed DFW clean air plan. To plug hotter and hotter temps into the DFW smog model for coming years would be admitting to a phenomena that the Rick Perry administration in Austin just can't bring itself to concede. One more example of how the DFW plan is being driven by politics, not science.
As the TCEQ's own staff admitted last week, DFW's ozone levels are often hostage to the weather. If you're model isn't correctly estimating the weather during future ozone seasons, chances are your estimates of future ozone levels will be off as well. But of course, since smog isn't really bad for you there's no downside to being wrong about these things at TCEQ HQ, and only an upside in GOP primaries.
For the rest of us who believe what the science tells us, the consequences are more dire. As the VICE magazine take on the Stanford study said:
"….one reason this study is so important to the climate change conversation—it underlines the public health threat posed by climbing temps. When Obama was touting the EPA's new carbon regulations, he emphasized the public health benefits of drawing down emissions: It would reduce asthma and respiratory illness, he pointed out. But that's largely because shuttering dirty power plants cuts both carbon and particulate pollutants simultaneously; fighting climate change also means fighting asthma.
Now, scientists have demonstrated there's an additional layer of concern to grapple with on the pollution front; climate change is going to begin blocking cities' toxic release valves. If we don't work to slow carbon emissions, these steamier cities will find their streets clogged with stagnant smog. Scrubbing that pollution and finding novel ways to clear the air, too, then, will prove to be a pressing concern in the not-so-distant future.
The latest chapter in a decades old mystery game of "Get a Clue" happens tomorrow morning, Monday, June 16th when representatives of the Sierra Club and Downwinders at Risk present their case against the current state anti-smog plan during the regional air planning meeting at the headquarters of the North Texas Council of Governments, 616 Six Flags Road in Arlington. Come find out who and/or what keeps the DFW area from ever meeting federal clean air standards year after year and what can be done about it. The meeting starts at 10 am. Citizen groups are expected to do their presentations in the 11 to 12 hour. Then we'll all have a debriefing lunch at the Subway's down the street hosted by State Representative Lon Burnam. Y'all come.
Local residents refused to let the air quality planning process die, showing up in numbers that forced officials to switch to a larger room, and making sure their opposition to another state "do-nothing" air plan was heard loud and clear.
Their participation had already changed the day's agenda. Included was a breakthrough UNT study that directly challenges the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's claim that natural gas emissions don't increase DFW smog.
UNT's Dr. Kuruvilla John's presentation of the new study received quite a bit of media coverage, before, during, and after Thursday's meeting. You can find some of the best coverage by clicking on the links below.
UT-Austin Study Reveals "Underestimates"
Dr. John's presentation influenced another researcher's slide show as well. Scheduled to speak about older, more generic ambient air measurements for ozone, Dr. David Allen of UT Austin instead presented more recent research into gas pollution as well.
Overlooked in the debut of the UNT study, Allen's constant monitoring of one drill site in Fort Worth revealed that the TCEQ was underestimating emissions from the pneumatic valves at the site by 159%.
That was news to both citizens and TCEQ, who said they hadn't looked at Allen's research and hadn't corrected their inventories to account for such underestimates. Valves like these are powered by natural gas, are quite numerous on gas equipment, and account for a large percentage of VOCs released from a fracking site.
A Better Picture of Oil and Gas Pollution
Citizen cross-examination of TCEQ staff members present at the meeting also revealed a different look at the volume of Oil and Gas industry pollution in the 10-county DFW "non-attainment area"
Up to Thursday, TCEQ was dispersing Oil and Gas pollution across several categories, making it impossible to show the true total impacts.
Here's an example of the way TCEQ likes to present the info:
SOURCES OF SMOG-FORMING NITROGEN OXIDE POLLUTION (NOx)
IN DFW's NON-ATTAINMENT AREA
1. "On Road" vehicles 113.21 tons per day
2. "Non-Road" vehicles" 39.87 tpd
3. "Area" 30.76 tpd
4. "Other Point Sources" 24.95 tpd
5. "Locomotives" 18.90 tpd
6. "Cement Kilns" 17.60 tpd
7. "Electric Utilities" 15.02 tpd
8. Oil and Gas Production 12.21 tpd
9."Airports" 11.77 tpd
10. Oil and Gas Drill Rigs 5.83 tpd
TOTAL 290.12 tpd
This makes it look like Oil and Gas pollution is not that big a deal.
But it turns out TCEQ is hiding 28.44 tpd of NOx gas compressor pollution in the "Area" and "Other Point Source" categories.
This was brought out in questioning on Thursday. Once you add these figures to the other Oil and Gas emission numbers spread out over different categories, this is what you get:
SOURCES OF SMOG-FORMING NITROGEN OXIDE POLLUTION (NOx)
IN DFW's NON-ATTAINMENT AREA
1. "On Road" vehicles 113.21 tpd
2. Oil and Gas Industry 46.48 tpd
3. "Non-Road" vehicles 39.87 tpd
4. "Locomotives" 18.90 tpd
5. "Cement Kilns" 17.60 tpd
6. "Area" 15.93 tpd
7. "Electric Utilities" 15.02 tpd
8. "Other Point Sources" 11.34 tpd
9. "Airports" 11.77 tpd
(Earlier today we put out an e-mail alert that left 10 tons off the "Area" category in this second chart, greatly affecting its ranking. That mistake is corrected in this version of the chart and we apologize for any confusion that might have caused)
When you quit playing the state's shell game with Shale pollution, the Oil and Gas industry becomes the region's second largest source of NOx pollution – the kind of pollution TCEQ says is the main driver of smog in DFW (not even counting all the pollution from O&G fracking trucks still hiding in the "On Road" category).
There have been control measures for cars to reduce NOx. There have been controls on heavy duty equipment and trucks to reduce NOx. There have been new controls on locomotives to reduce NOx pollution. There have been controls on airport ground equipment to reduce NOx pollution. There's even been middling controls to reduce the NOx from the Midlothian cement kilns. But where's the controls to reduce NOx from the Oil and Gas industry – the one source in this list that hasn't had the same kind of regulatory attention? Good question – save it for next time.
Citizen Participation is Crucial
This is the kind of close examination the TCEQ hopes to avoid by limiting debate on this new clean air plan, scheduled to be submitted to EPA by July next year. And it's exactly why citizens need to keep showing up.
Because of the momentum and interest coming out of Thursday's meeting, citizens also got the next scheduled pow-wow of the local air planning process moved up to late May or early June instead of waiting until July.
We're already taking suggestions for what you want to see on that agenda, so don't be shy. And thank you again for restoring some tiny amounts of integrity into a process that's been swamped by Rick Perry's indifference.
You're making a difference, and that's all anybody can do. This last Thursday it was a big difference. Let's try to do the same in May.
Some Coverage of Thursday's Air Planning Mtg.
HOW YOU CAN SAY "THANK YOU" BACK
Here's what Downwinders at Risk did this past week to make sure Thursday's air quality meeting wasa success:
1) Pressed for and got the UNT study linking fracking to smog on the meeting agenda after being told it would not be included.
2) Sent out releases to the media advertising the UNT presentation.
3) Sent out alerts to you and others to let you know about the new UNT study and the meeting itself.
4) Sent out a "Citizens' Guide to the Meeting" so you could be prepared for Thursday.
5) Showed-up at Thursday's meeting with handouts showing the lack of air quality progress in DFW and the lack of a complete plan by TCEQ
6) Used our questions to reveal how TCEQ was hiding Oil and Gas industry pollution totals in their data
7) Pressed for and got an earlier "next meeting" of the local air quality planning group
8) Sent out this follow-up so that everyone knows what went on and what the news is from the meeting
A local forum for clean air issues was about to disappear.
Only the last month's mobilization of citizens prevented that from happening on Thursday.
Who began that mobilization?
We really need your financial help to keep doing this. We don't get state or national funding – just local money from people like yourself.
Thanks. We very much appreciate it.
Sometimes it takes a perspective above the grind of trench warfare to give you a better sense of what the entire battlefield looks like. That's what UT Law Professor Rachel Rawlins has done for Barnett Shale activists with the recent publication of her article "Planning for Fracking on the Barnett Shale: Urban Air Pollution, Improving Health Based Regulation, and the Role of Local Governments" in the new Virginia Environmental Law Review.
Don't let the academic title fool you. This is a call for a radically new approach to how communities in Texas regulate the risks of fracking, and every other type of heavy industry. We put the link up for the piece on our Facebook page on Saturday based on a quick reading of its commentary on the Flower Mound cancer cluster, but it's more, so much more than that. Among other things, it's a comprehensive rebuttal of every claim of safety and well-being ever issued by the industry or state authorities about the health of residents living in the Barnett Shale, of which the Flower Mound case is only one example. Rawlins has produced a one-stop catalog of each major air pollution health controversy in the Barnett since concerns began to grow in the last decade, with an almost 30-page review of why no industry or government-sponsored study of fracking pollution and its health effects is a satisfactory response to those concerns. Want to convince your local officials that fracking isn't as safe as it's touted? Here's the staggering blow-by-blow commentary to do it.
But all of that documentation is presented in service to making the point that current state and federal regulation of fracking is failing to protect public health, both in design and in practice. Professor Rawlins' solution to this problem is not to give the state and federal government more power to regulate the gas industry. No, it's to turn the current regulatory framework upside down and give more power to local governments to do the things that the state and federal government should be doing.
In making this recommendation, she echoes the strategy that's been driving Downwinders since it was founded – that the best way to regulate pollution problems is at the local level where the most harm is being done, and it should be directed by the people being harmed. This is what drove our Green Cement campaign that closed the last obsolete wet cement kiln in Texas. This is what fueled our campaign to close down the trailer park-come-lead smelter in Frisco. And it's what was behind the recent Dallas fights over drilling. In each case, it wasn't Austin or Washington DC that was the instrument of change – it was local governments, pressed by their constituents, flexing their regulatory powers. The same thing is driving activists in Denton who are organizing the ban fracking petition drive and vote.
This strategy avoids battles where industry is strongest – in the halls of the state capitol and in DC, where citizens are outspent millions to one. Instead, it takes the fight to neighborhoods where the harm is being done or proposed, where people have the most to lose, where the heat that can be applied to elected officials is more intense. Citizens will still get outspent, but the money doesn't seem to buy corporations as much influence among those actually breathing the fumes of the drilling site, or smokestack.
Particularly now, with corporate-friendly faux-Tea Party types in control of state government and the House of Representatives in DC, there is little room for grassroots campaigns to make a difference by passing new legislation. Even if by some miracle a few bills did pass, their enforcement would be up to the same state or federal agencies that are currently failing citizens. Local is more direct, and more accountable. Professor Rawlins agrees, and spends most of the rest of her 81-page journal article citing the ways in which local control of fracking in the Barnett Shale is hampered by the out-dated top-down approach to regulation, and what should be done to fix that.
Included in her recommendations are two long-term Downwinders projects: Allowing local governments to close the "off-sets" loophole for the gas industry that exempts them from having to compensate for their smog-forming pollution in already smoggy areas like DFW, and creating California-like local air pollution control districts that could set their own health based exposure standards and pollution control measures without having to go through Austin or DC.
If there's a single major fault in Rawlins's analysis, it's that she believes more local control of pollution risks is itself dependent on action by an unwilling state government. But Downwinders and others have shown that isn't true. Our most significant and far-reaching victories – from the closing of the Midlothian wet kilns to the new Dallas drilling ordinance – have all taken place while Rick Perry was Governor and the state legislature was in the hands of our opponents. We did these things despite Austin, not because we had its permission. Local zoning laws, local permitting rules, local nuisance acts, and other local powers are under-utilized by both residents and their elected officials when it comes to pollution hazards.
The same is true now of Downwinders' off-sets campaign aimed at the gas industry. We think we've found a way to avoid the "preemption" argument that would keep local governments from acting on smog pollution from gas sources by aiming the off-sets at Greenhouse gases – an area of regulation Texas is loathe to enter. By targeting GHG reduction, we also reduce a lot of toxic and smog-forming air pollution. It's a back door way, but it accomplishes the same goal. It's going to be up to Texas activists to sew similar small threads of change through an otherwise hostile political environment.
Even given that flaw, Professor Rawlins' introduction to her article is the most concise summary of the air pollution problems caused by gas mining and production in the Barnett, as well as the most credible call to action for a new way of doing business there. Here it is reprinted in full for your consideration:
In the last decade hydraulic fracturing for natural gas has exploded on the Barnett Shale in Texas. The region is now home to the most intensive hydraulic fracking and gas production activities ever undertaken in densely urbanized areas. Faced with minimal state and federal regulation, Texas cities are on the front line in the effort to figure out how best to balance industry, land use, and environmental concerns. Local governments in Texas, however, do not currently have the regulatory authority, capacity, or the information required to closet he regulatory gap. Using the community experience on the Barnett Shale as a case study, this article focuses on the legal and regulatory framework governing air emissions and proposes changes to the current regulatory structure.
Under both the state and federal programs, the regulation of hazardous air emissions from gas operations is based largely on questions of cost and available technology. There is no comprehensive cumulative risk assessment to consider the potential impact to public health in urban areas. Drilling operations are being conducted in residential areas. Residents living in close proximity to gas operations on the Barnett Shale have voiced serious concerns for their health, which have yet to be comprehensively evaluated. Given the complexityof the science, and the dearth of clear, transparent, and enforceable standards, inadequate studies and limited statistical analysis have been allowed to provide potentially false assurances. The politically expedient bottom line dominates with little attention paid to the quality of the science or the adequacy of the standards.
Determining and applying comprehensive health-based standards for hazardous air pollutants has been largely abandoned at the federal level given uncertainties in the science, difficulties of determining and
measuring “safe” levels of toxic pollutants, and the potential for economic disruption. Neither the state nor the federal government has set enforceable ambient standards for hazardous air pollutants.
Identifying cumulative air pollution problems that may occur in urban areas, the State of California has called upon local governments to identify “hot spots” and to consider air quality issues in their planning and zoning actions. In Texas, however, preemption discussions dominate the analysis. Any local government regulation that might provide protection from toxic air emissions otherwise regulated by the State must be justified by some other public purpose.
Texas should consider authorizing and encouraging local level air quality planning for industrial activities, similar to what California has done. Care should be taken to separate these facilities from sensitive receptors and “hot spots” that may already be burdened with excessive hazardous air emissions. Given the difficulty of the task, there is also an important role for the state and federal governments in working to establish ambient standards for hazardous air pollutants, as well as standards for health based assessment and public communication. The uncertainty inherent in any of these standards should be made clear and accessible to local governments so that it may be considered in making appropriate and protective land use decisions. Texas should consider allowing local governments to have the power to establish ambient air quality standards, emissions limitations, monitoring, reporting, and offsets for hazardous air pollutants, following the model applied to conventional air pollutants pursuant to the federal program.
Professor Rawlins' article provides Barnett Shale activists with a new map to guide them toward more effective action. We'd all do well to study it and pick local battles that promise to contribute toward its realization.
DFW has a smog problem. It's not as bad as it used to be, but it's still at unsafe and illegal levels. And for the last four or five years, the air quality progress that should have been made has been stymied. Despite almost all large sources of smog-producing pollution being reduced in volume, our running average for ozone is actually a part per billion higher than it was in 2009.
Many local activists believe this lack of progress is due to the huge volumes of smog-producing air pollution being generated by the thousands of individual natural gas sites throughout the DFW region itself, as well as upwind gas and oil plays. In 2012, a Houston-based think tank released a report showing how a single gas flare or compressor could significantly impact downwind smog levels for up to 5 mile or more. Industry and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality say no, gas sources are not significant contributors to DFW smog. In fact, during this current round of planning, the state has gone out of its way to downplay the impact of gas pollution, including rolling back previous emission inventories and inventing new ways to estimates emissions from large facilities like compressor stations.
Into this debate steps a UNT graduate student offering a simple and eloquent scientific analysis that uses the state's own data on smog to indict the gas industry for its chronic persistence in DFW – especially in the western part of he Metromess, where Barnett Shale production is concentrated.
On Monday night Denton Record-Chronicle reporter Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe gave a summary of a presentation on local air quality she'd sat through that day at UNT:
"Graduate student Mahdi Ahmadi, working with his advisor, Dr. Kuruvilla John, downloaded the ozone air monitoring data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality back to 1997, a total of more than 6.5 million data points, he said, and has been studying it for the past four months.
Ahmadi wanted to explore a basic question underlying a graphic frequently distributed by the TCEQ that shows gas wells going up in DFW as ozone goes down, which suggests in a not-very-scientific-at-all way, that the increasing number of gas wells is having no effect on the ozone.
Ahmadi adjusted for meteorological conditions to determine how much ozone DFW people are making and where. Such adjustments have been explored by others to understand better the parts of ozone-making we can control, because we can’t control the weather. He used an advanced statistical method on the data, called the Kolmogorov-Zurbenko filter, to separate the effects of atmospheric parameters from human activities.
According to the results, the air monitoring sites surrounded by oil and gas production activities, generally on the west side of DFW, show worse long-term trends in ozone reduction than those located farther from wells on the east side of DFW.
His spatial analysis of the data showed that ozone distribution has been disproportionally changed and appears linked to production activities, perhaps an explanation why residents on the western side of DFW are seeing more locally produced ozone, particularly since 2008.
Ahmadi's results are not definitive, and the paper he's writing is still a work-in-progress. But he's asking the right questions, and challenging the right unproven assumptions. He's at least put forth an hypothesis and is trying to prove or disprove it. He's using science. TCEQ's approach is all faith-based.
Anything that takes the focus off vehicle pollution is anathema to Austin and many local officials who want to pretend that industrial sources of air pollution don't impact the DFW region enough to make a difference so they don't have to regulate them. If there's a guiding principle to TCEQ's approach to this new clean air plan, due in July 2015, it's to avoid any excuse for new regulations while Rick Perry is running for President. The agency isn't interested in doing any kind of science that might challenge that perspective – no matter how persuasive. After all, you're talking about a group that doesn't believe smog is bad for you. TCEQ doesn't want to know the truth. It can't handle the truth. It's got an ideology and it's stickin' to it.
So it's up to young lowly graduate students from state universities armed only with a healthy sense of scientific curiosity to step up and start suggesting that the Emperor's computer model has no clothes, and offering up alternative scenarios to explain why DFW air quality is stuck in neutral. It turns out, just doing straight-up classroom science is enough to threaten the fragile House of Computer Cards with which the state's air plan is being built.
Perhaps equally as ominous for the success fo any new clean air plan is Ahmadi's discovery that ozone levels in DFW have been during the winter time, or "off-ozone-season." There could be a new normal, higher background level of smog affecting public health almost year round.
Mahdi Ahmadi's study is just one of the many that need to be done to construct an honest clean air plan for DFW, but it shows you what a curious mind and some computing power can do. Citizens can't trust the state to do the basic science necessary as long as the current cast of characters is running the show in Austin. EPA won't step in and stop the farce as long as TCEQ can make things work out on paper. If the scientific method is going to get used to build a better DFW clean air plan, it's going to have to be citizens who apply it.
There's not much of a local air planning process left in DFW. What remains is an irregularly-scheduled "technical committee meeting" that mostly involves the staff of Rick Perry's Texas Commission on Environmental Quality explaining how their new anti-smog plan will be successful without the addition of any new pollution controls. But after this explanation any members of the audience can ask questions about the presentation. And if they need to, they can ask follow-up questions. It's the only forum where citizens can do this with a real live TCEQ staffer and the staff is expected to respond. You may not like their response, but there is an exchange.
The value of a place where citizens can ask questions of TCEQ and expect to get answers rises when one reads about how difficult it was for the reporters working on the huge Eagle Ford expose published last week to get anyone at the TCEQ to answer their questions at all, much less in person. In a sidebar piece that ran with the original piece, titled "How We Got the Eagle Ford Story," they explain the obstacles the state put in their way,
The agency responsible for regulating air emissions—the TCEQ—refused to make any of its commissioners, officials or investigators available for interviews. Instead, we had to submit questions via emails that were routed through agency spokespeople. It's unclear if the spokespeople passed our questions along to the agency’s experts. We received answers to most of our emails, often in some detail. But some of our questions were ignored or answered with talking points on general topics. The TCEQ employees who dealt with our public records requests were helpful and responsive, however. They discussed the filing process over the phone and answered questions about our requests.
*When a reporter called TCEQ field inspectors at their homes—a commonly used reporting technique—TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow left the reporter a message saying, “Under no circumstances are you to call our people and harass them at home.” Morrow also blocked the reporter from approaching the agency’s chairman, Bryan Shaw, at a public meeting in Austin.
The next DFW anti-smog plan "technical meeting" is 10 am on Thursday April 17th at the North Central Texas Council of Government's headquarters at 616 Six Flags Road in Arlington. One of the biggest controversies with the state's approach is determining the amount of gas and oil industry air pollution that's actually out there affecting DFW. The Eagle Ford story shines a bright spotlight on why the TCEQ really doesn't have a clue about the true amount of gas pollution, so why is it so confident about its numbers in the Barnett Shale, or the shale plays to the south and east of us that are upwind during "ozone season?" Good question. Come ask it on the 17th.
By now, many of you have seen the massive eight-month act of journalism that the Center for Public Integrity committed in describing the situation in the Eagle Ford shale play in South Texas. It's probably the most comprehensive look at what it's like to live in Texas fracking hell that's been published, and it rightly got distributed far and wide.
Along with the now-familiar litany of acute human health effects from gas mining – nosebleeds, headaches, skin rashes, respiratory problems – the article also talked about the smog-forming pollution cause by the thousands of small, medium-sized and large gas facilities that invade a shale play. Together they represent a formidable air quality challenge.
Centering on the Buehring family of Karnes City, the piece lists the inventory of gas mining infrastructure surrounding their home. Besides the 50 wells within two and a half miles, they also host,
"….at least nine oil and gas production facilities. Little is known about six of the facilities, because they don't have to file their emissions data with the state. Air permits or the remaining three sites show they house 25 compressor engines, 10 heater treaters, 6 flares, 4 glycol dehydrators and 65 storage tanks for oil, wastewater and condensate. Combined, those sites have the state's permission to release 189 tons of volatile organic compounds, a class of toxic chemicals that includes benzene and formaldehyde, into the air each year. That's about 12 percent more than Valero's Houston Oil Refinery disgorged in 2012.
Those three facilities also are allowed to release 142 tons of nitrogen oxides, 95 tons of carbon monoxide, 19 tons of sulfur dioxide, 8 tons of particulate matter and 0.31 tons of hydrogen sulfide per year. Sometimes the emissions soar high into the sky and are carried by the wind until they drop to the ground miles away. Sometimes they blow straight toward the Buehrings' or their neighbors' homes.
That's 331 tons a year of smog-forming Nitrogen Oxides and Volatile Organic Compounds released from just a small number of square miles in the Eagle Ford. Just two more collections of facilities like that would equal all the smog pollution coming from the TXI cement plan tin Midlothian – North Texas' single largest smog polluter. It's no wonder then that a San Antonio Council of Governments air pollution model found that Eagle Ford smog pollution would make it impossible for the Alamo City to comply with the new 75 parts per million federal ozone standard.
Moreover, that 331 tons a year figure is just what can be discerned by reading Texas' archaic permitting records. The Center's reporters do a real public service in identifying the loopholes and gaps the system encourages that hide the true air pollution numbers,
Texas' regulatory efforts are also hamstrung by a law that allows thousands of oil and gas facilities—including wells, storage tanks and compressor stations—to operate on an honor system, without reporting their emissions to the state.
Operators can take advantage of this privilege—called a permit by rule, or PBR—if their facilities emit no more than 25 tons of VOCs per year and handle natural gas that is low in hydrogen sulfide. Two employees in the TCEQ's air permits office—Anne Inman and John Gott—estimate these PBRs could account for at least half of the hundreds of thousands of air permits the agency has issued for new or modified oil and gas facilities since the 1970s.
Operators with this type of permit aren't required to file paperwork backing up their self-determined status, so the TCEQ has no record of most of the facilities' locations or emissions. A chart generated in 2011 by the office of then-TCEQ executive director Zak Covar says the permits "Cannot be proven to be protective. Unclear requirements for records to demonstrate compliance with rules."
Big operators sometimes get a PBR for each component of a facility. Each might be under the 25-ton-per-year threshold that would require a more rigorous permit, but the facility as a whole could emit more than that.
The TCEQ refers to the practice as the "stacking of multiple authorizations," and the memo from Covar's office said its use "means that protectiveness and compliance with the rules cannot be demonstrated."
But of course that doesn't keep Rick Perry's TCEQ from saying everything is all right. As per usual, officials want to the results of stationary monitors in the region to assure residents that nothing unhealthy is being breathed-in.
"[M]onitoring data provides evidence that overall, shale-play activity does not significantly impact air quality or pose a threat to human health," agency spokeswoman Andrea Morrow wrote in an email."
But in this case, the region, covering a huge area from East Texas to the Rio Grande, has only five such monitors, "all positioned far from the most heavily drilled areas."
Moreover, that's just the holes in the permitting process itself. What about when a facility is a bad actor and has an "emission event' or "upset" where more than the permitted amount of pollution is released for hours or even days at a time?
"The number of emission events associated with oil and gas development doubled between fiscal years 2009 and 2013, from 1,012 to 2,023. The amount of air pollutants released into the Texas air during these events increased 39 percent."
A gas processing plant in McMullen County, in the southwestern portion of the Eagle Ford, reported 166 emission events last year, almost one every other day. From 2007 through 2011, the Tilden plant, owned by Regency Energy Partners of Dallas, discharged 1,348 tons of sulfur dioxide during such episodes. That's more than 30 times the amount it was legally allowed to release during "normal" operations.
Marathon waited three months to report a 2012 incident at its Sugarhorn plant near the Cernys and Buehrings. It released 26,000 pounds of VOCs in 12 hours, 1,000 times more than allowed under its air permit.
But what has this got to do with DFW smog? Everything. Besides the Barnett Shale play entering and enveloping the Metromess from the West, we also have the Eagle Ford and Haynesville shale plays to our South and East – upwind of DFW during our eight-month "ozone season." There are now as many wells in close proximity to DFW up wind as downwind.
Right now, as part of the new anti-smog plan for DFW being drafted by the TCEQ, the state is "re-calculating" oil and gas air pollution emissions and you'll never guess how that's working out – TCEQ is using industry advice to lower their estimates from last time around. At a January 31st meeting of what's left of the local air planning process, the state presented its new study that it's using to revise the considerable amount of air pollution coming from leaks and releases from condensate storage tanks in the Barnett and elsewhere. As of 2012, these releases are estimated by TCEQ to be only 25% of what they were in 2006. See how well that works out? And this number will be plugged into the computer model that then estimates how much of that air pollution turns into smog.
Instead of getting real world numbers for compressor stations, the TCEQ is now using a fomula based on local production and horsepower to estimate emissions, and guess which way this new technique is sending the numbers?
TCEQ is doing everything it can to make sure that the oil and gas air pollution numbers are as low for this new anti-smog plan as they can make them without breaking out laughing. Why? To prevent the call for new controls on these sources, even though everyone knows they're adding to the problem. Oil and gas emissions are the one air pollution category in DFW that's grown in volume since 2006, while others, like the Midlothian cement plants and East Texas coal plants, and even cars, have all gone down. Meanwhile, DFW ozone averages are higher then they were in 2009. Many of us don't think that's a coincidence. But the ideologically-driven TCEQ can't afford to admit the obvious – not while Rick Perry is running for President.
Compare the TCEQ strategy in DFW with the reality described in the Center for Public Integrity's reports from the Eagle Ford Shale and you have two completely different pictures of the amount of air pollution coming from the oil and gas industry. Which do your trust more – the official calculations coming out of Austin, or the secret memos and field reports uncovered by the reporters?
If what's happening in South Texas is also what's happening in the shale plays in and around DFW – and there's no reason to think it isn't – then the volumes the TCEQ is plugging into its anti-smog plan for the Metromess are off by large factors. That in turn could spell doom for the plan, due to be submitted to the EPA by July of 2015 – a little over a year from now.
This is why it's important for citizens to have their own computing power with their own modeling capabilities. It's the only way to call TCEQ's bluff that it's using all the right information to draft its new clean air plan to EPA. Without the technical know how to be able to look over TCEQ's shoulders and reveal its "GIGO"strategy, our lungs are hostages of Rick Perry's political ambitions.
The next North Texas appearance by TCEQ staff to explain how its estimating – or not – the air pollution from oil and gas industry sources as well as every other source – is scheduled for 10 am on Thursday, April 17th at the HQ of the North Central Texas Council of Governments located at 616 Six Flags Drive – right across the street from the Amusement Park. We need citizens to come out and ask pointed questions about the TCEQ effort to keep us from being taken on another ride to nowhere. Anyone can come and ask questions of the presenters – it's an open forum – and indeed it's the ONLY opportunity citizens have to actually quiz the TCEQ about the process. Please mark the date and try to be there. Meetings usually last until 12 noon or so. They think you're not paying attention. These numbers and quotes from the Public Integrity Center piece gives you lots of ammunition to prove otherwise.