Wednesday of last week saw the deadline for filing official comments on the dreadful "plan" the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has proposed to lower smog levels in DFW by 2018. In effect, the plan is to wait for federal gasoline changes in 2017 and hope for the best.
Shortly before closing time Wednesday, Downwinders at Risk and the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club submitted 62 pages of criticisms concerning the plan. Not because either organization believes the TCEQ Commissioners will change heir minds, but because we're trying to establish a record that might eventually lead to a court challenge of the plan.
Although lengthy, the basic approach of the groups is two fold – call into question the state's computer modeling that's predicting success and challenge the state's exclusion of new pollution control measures on the Midlothian cement plants, East Texas Coal plants and Barnett Shale gas compressors.
Some of the highlights:
– The computer modeling the TCEQ is using for its new plan is the same it used for plans in 2006 and 2011, neither one of them successful at meeting its goal of cleaner air by the assigned deadline. In fact, the last clean air plan using this same model underestimated smog levels by almost 10 parts ber billion and actually saw a slight rise in smog at its conclusion – the first time a DFW plan ever resulted in higher ozone levels.
– In defiance of EPA guidance, the computer model TCEQ is using is more than five years old. EPA specifically recommends using an "ozone season" from 2009 to 2013. TCEQ's model is leftover from 2006, or three years older than the oldest year EPA says is appropriate.
– Also contrary to EPA rules, the TCEQ 2006 computer model ignores including the most relevant “meteorological conditions conducive to elevated air quality.” 2011 was the worst year for ozone levels in DFW since the beginning of this decade, in large part because it reflected the worst drought conditions. The three-year rolling average for the worst monitor, called the "design value" rose back up to 90 parts per billion after years of floating in the mid to upper 80's. But instead of using that year as a worst case baseline, the state defaulted to its 2006 model that doesn't incorporate the current drought.
– TCEQ's prediction of success is built on a series of unrealistic assumptions about the quantity of oil and gas pollution. For example, it underestimates the number and impact of air pollution from hundreds of large compressor stations and thousands of smaller "lift" compressors as the Barnett Shale ages. Fully 60 to 70% of all air pollution from the gas industry comes from these kinds fo facilities, so a mistake in estimating their impact could have a large chain reaction at downwind air quality monitoring sites in Tarrant, Denton, Parker and Johnson counties.
TCEQ also assumes that production levels in the Barnett will fall steeply. If they do not, there could be hundreds of tons more air pollution from the industry annually than what TCEQ assumes in its model.
That's important because the model predicts that the region will only barely squeak-by the 75 ppb standard required by 2018, with levels coming in at 75.87 at the Denton monitor site, 75.15 at Eagle Mountain Lake, and 75.04 in Grapevine. A jump in oil and gas pollution – or any other surge in pollution from any other source – could make those numbers obsolete and ruin our chances fo complying with the Clean Air Act on time…again.
– TCEQ's "Contingency Measures" are illegal. Every smog plan must have a series of quantifiable back-up contingency pans in case the options the plan relies on fail to achieve success. In this case, the state is only relying on unquantified and voluntary actions, such as "incentive" programs, the effectiveness of which cannot be measured. Since you can't measure them, you can't count them.
– TCEQ failed to consider all "reasonably available control technologies" and "measures." Nearly 40 pages is devoted to the wrong-headed, irrational, and illegal way TCEQ rejects off-the-shelf air pollution controls for the Midlothian cement plants, East Texas coal plants, and large gas compressors.
Under the Clean Air Act, a state's plan “shall provide for the implementation of all reasonably available control measures as expeditiously as practicable (including such reductions in emissions from existing sources in the area as may be obtained through the adoption, at a minimum, of reasonably available control technology) and shall provide for attainment of the national primary ambient air quality standards.” In order for the EPA to determine whether an area has provided for implementation as "expeditiously as practicable,” the State "must explain why the selected implementation schedule is the earliest schedule based on the specific circumstances of that area. Such claims cannot be general claims that more time is needed but rather should be specifically grounded in evidence of economic or technologic infeasibility.”
Step-by-step, Downwinders and the Sierra Club explains why Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) is a reasonable control technology for the Midlothian cement plants and East Texas coal plants. Even as the owners of one of the Midlothian cement plants applies for a permit to install the technology, TCEQ is claiming its still not ready for prime time. The groups demonstrate how requiring SCR on these major polluters would have a large impact on DFW ozone levels.
The same level of absurdity if reveled in TCEQ's rejection of electrification of gas compressors. Despite being able to significantly lower smog-pollution in the very areas where its needed most, and despite electrification even being required by many Barnett shale municipalities, the state maintains that this option is unrealistic and unachievable.
There's probably no better compendium of the various sins committed by the TCEQ plan than these comments. If you're looking for the most solid case for compressor electrification, or SCR adaptation, or just TCEQ malfeasance, this is your one-stop shop.
You may think this is a technical document, or one full of legal mumbo-jumbo. It's not, at least not for the most part. Instead it's the kind of logical, evidenced case you'd assemble for a debate with the TCEQ. It's a blow-by-blow comprehensive look at why the state isn't any more likely to meet this clean air deadline than it has any other. A case we hope is capable of persuading EPA to reject the TCEQ plan.
(Arlington) Critics of a new plan to clean the air in Dallas-Ft. Worth are using a public hearing on Thursday evening to accuse the state of Texas of breaking the law by not requiring the implementation of pollution control technologies already in widespread use to help lower smog levels in North Texas.
“We’re asking residents to come out and get sworn into a citizens posse to help us make the state follow the Clean Air Act,” said Jim Schermbeck, Director of the local clean air group Downwinders at risk, one of the leading opponents of he new plan. “Austin is going to ridiculous, Monty Python-like lengths to avoid new controls on the Midlothian cement plants, East Texas coal plants, and local gas facilities in this new plan – even though those controls are now commonplace in each industry.”
Thursday’s public hearing centers on a new plan to comply with the federal ozone standard of 75 parts per billion (ppb) by 2018. DFW has never achieved such a low level of smog, and only this last year dipped below the 1997 standard of 85 ppb for the first time with the help of cooler, wetter summer.
EPA says a state plan like the one the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is proposing for DFW must include “all Reasonable Available Control Technologies,” and “all Reasonable Available Control Measures” to get lower smog levels as “expeditiously as possible.” EPA defines these as technologies as ones that are “technically and economically feasible.” But according to Schermbeck, the state of Texas is deliberately ruling out local use of pollution controls already adopted by industry that could speed cleaner air.
He cited three examples. Selective Catalytic Reduction, or SCR acts much like the catalyst on cars, only on a much larger scale for industrial plants. It’s already in use on at least half a dozen European cement plants where it’s reduced smog-forming pollution by up to 90%, and on many coal-fired power plants across the world and in the US, where it achieves the same results. Yet the TCEQ DFW air plan doesn’t require SCR on the largest single sources of smog pollution in the region, the Midlothian cement plants, or the East Texas coal plants that are known to impact DFW air quality, saying the technology isn’t “feasible.” TCEQ maintains this stance even though the Holcim cement plant in Midlothian has announced plans to include an SCR unit on one of its own kilns.
“Here’s a pollution control technology already in operation and achieving great results, with a cement plant in North Texas already adopting it, but the state’s position is that it isn’t ‘feasible’. It’d be comical if it wasn’t delaying cleaner air for over 6 million people that haven’t had it in decades.”
Besides ignoring SCR on cement and coal plants, Schermbeck said the TCEQ has also ruled-out electrification of large gas compressors as “infeasible” – despite the widespread use of electric compressors In the Barnett Shale already and the requirement of municipalities like Dallas and Southlake to allow nothing but electric compressors within their city limits. According to a 2012 study by the Houston Advance Research Consortium, compressors could increase downwind ozone levels as much as 3 to 10 parts per billion. There are at least 647 large compressors in the DFW “non-attainment area” covered by the TCEQ air plan.
“Requiring just these three technologies that are already on the market and being used in their respective industries could reduce air pollution by thousands of tons a year and help us achieve compliance with the new federal ozone standard much quicker,“ said Schermbeck. He said they all pass the test of being feasible according to EPA definitions. “By law, they should be required.”
Instead, the state is relying exclusively on a new federal gasoline mix being introduced in 2017 to achieve the required 75 ppb standard by 2018. Although it’s expected to help lower ozone levels across the country, it won’t get DFW down to the level of 75 ppb alone. To make the plan work on paper, the state has had to estimate oil and gas pollution downward in a way Schermbeck and others claim is unrealistic.
“Basically, the state’s approach is to do absolutely nothing for the next three years and hope the federal gasoline change brings it “close enough” to the lower standard. But hope is not a plan.”
Schermbeck said his group would be passing out badges to members of their clean air posse and recruiting residents to persuade the EPA to reject the state’s proposal. The federal agency has the final say. But there’s also always court – where many clean air rules for the state of Texas have been decided over the last 20 years. “If government won’t enforce the law, we may have to do it ourselves.”
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.
Other than an occasional trip to Austin or DC to stop or support some piece of legislation, the action takes place in whatever community is putting up the most resistance. Front lines are fragmented and move around a lot. There's not a single cause that's united the energy from the multitude of ad hoc groups and individual "fracktivists" into a focused campaign for regional change. The closest thing to more encompassing battles have been the recent victories in Dallas and the current kickass campaign in Denton. These feel like old Cold War skirmishes – proxy clashes standing in for the on-going larger war over the Barnett Shale's soul.
But from now until the summer of 2015 there's a regional fracking fight waiting to be fought. It involves new bureaucracies and terms and mechanics, so it makes a lot of traditional fracking foes nervous. But the payoff is the potential to affect change throughout a 10-county area, including the heart of the urban Barnett Shale – Tarrant, Parker, Denton, Johnson, Wise and Ellis – as well as Dallas, Collin, Kaufman, and Rockwall.
What's the fight? It's over the new regional anti-smog plan, called a State Implementation Plan, or SIP. When a region hasn't met the federal standard for smog, also called ozone, it has to submit a plan to the EPA to explain how it's going to comply by the end of a three-year deadline. Despite at least three previous plans, DFW has never met the 1997 federal standard for smog. It's 85 ppb, or "parts per billion" concentration over 8 hours measured by approximately 20 stationary monitors scattered over the area. The closest we've come has been 86 ppb of ozone in 2009.
The new DFW plan is supposed to be designed to meet an even more ambitious target – no monitor higher than a three-year running average of 75 ppb of ambient air by 2018. We're at 87 ppb now. To reach the new goal, DFW would have to drop 12 parts per billion in ambient smog levels in four years -something that's never happened before.
Ozone/smog is created by a combination of Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) from combustion sources and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from combustion sources and evaporation sources mixing in daylight. The more sun, the more ozone.
What are combustion sources of NOx and VOCs? Power plants and cement kilns. Every boiler and furnace and oven. Every internal combustion engine. Every diesel engine. Anything with a flame or a spark.
What are evaporation sources of VOCs? Gasoline pumps,tanks and paint shops.
An anti-smog plan is supposed to look at all the sources of smog-forming pollution in a region and find the cheapest and easiest ways to reduce it. Past plans have been responsible for putting more controls on coal-fired power plants and the Midlothian cement plants, as well as creating HOV lanes and tightening inspection standards for vehicles. But one large category of smog-forming emissions has been left largely untouched by past air plans – the gas and oil industry.
It's not because gas and oil sources aren't capable of contributing to DFW smog. Start with all the trucks that are needed for each well and the NOx and VOC emissions they produce. Then the drilling rig itself. Some cities now require electric motors, others still allow diesel and the NOx and VOCs they produce. Think about all the chemicals being dumped into a well and then flowing back out, many of them VOCs. Flares are sources of both NOx and VOCs. Storage tanks and pipelines are huge sources of escaped evaporated VOCs. Diesel compressors are huge sources of NOx. There isn't a part of the oil and gas fuel cycle that doesn't produce smog-forming pollution.
It's not because the oil and gas emissions are insignificant. In 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality estimated that the VOCs being released by all the oil and gas facilities in the DFW area were greater than the volume of VOCs being released by all the cars and trucks on the road in the same region. In 2012, a Houston Area Research Council report estimated that a single flare or compressor could raise downwind ozone levels 3 to 5 parts per billion as far as five to ten miles away.
No, the oil and gas industry haven't been touched by these state anti-smog plans because the state doesn't want to impose new regional regulations on an industry. It's nothing personal. Austin doesn't want to impose new regulations on any industry. The last serious SIP was in 2007 – before the Barnett Shale boom and Rick Perry's presidential campaign. Since then, it's been one excuse after another from TCEQ about why no new controls are necessary – even though DFW air quality progress has stopped and we're still in violation of a 20-year old smog standard.
It's also true that the oil and gas industry hasn't been touched by an air plan because no one's made them. No DFW anti-smog plan has been the focus of a fracking campaign like the recent Dallas Trinity East permits, or the Denton petition drive. There been no pressure on state government to respond to a regional demand for action.
But the new DFW air plan does offer gas activists a chance to get reforms outside of their own city limits. For example, it could be the goal to include mandatory electrification of compressors in this plan. It's been estimated that 60 % or more of the air pollution from the gas fuel cycle comes from compressors. Electrification doesn't solve all their air pollution problems but it takes a huge bite out of them because the compressors are no longer being run by locomotive size diesel engines. Electrification of new compressors and a phase-in to replace existing diesel engines could reduce not just smog pollution, but toxic air pollution and greenhouse gases by thousands of tons a year.
Even if Austin rejects such proposals, there's a part of every plan called the "Weight of Evidence" category that's more inclusive to voluntary measures. A recommendation for cities and counties to demand electrification of all compressors in the DFW region isn't as immediate as a state-sponsored mandate, but it's an official good housekeeping seal you can take to local city councils and pass one by one until it does become a de facto regional policy. This is exactly what happened with Downwinders' Green Cement procurement campaign from 2007-2011 aimed at getting rid of old wet cement kilns in Midlothian. A short recommendation to local governments about where to buy their cement in the 2007 SIP was turned into a model ordinance by Dallas and then passed by a dozen other entities, one by one, over the next two years. by the end of this year, there will be no wet kilns lift in Midlothian.
The same thing could happen with compressors in this new plan, or green completions, or tanks, or pipelines in this new DFW air plan – if activists are willing to invest the same amount of time and energy into a regional fight as they do in their own backyard battles.
You have a couple of chances in April to dip your toes into the SIP Process. This coming Sunday, April 6th, from 3 to 5 pm at the Texas Campaign for the Environment office in Dallas, State Rep Lon Burnam and Downwinders at Risk will be hosting a strategy meeting for folks who want to know more about how to take advantage of this new air plan. Central to this strategy is involving more gas activists to win a regional fight, so y'all come.
Then on April 17th, at 10 am at the North Central Council of Governments Headquarters in Arlington, there's a meeting of the SIP "technical committee" that will be hearing presentations from the state and others about DFW's smog problem. Don't let the "technical committee" name fool you. These are open to the public and anyone can attend. In fact, this is your chance to ask questions of the state and the experts.
And to make it more interesting, we think we've managed to convince the Powers That Be to include UNT graduate student Mahdi Ahmadi's presentation on Barnett Shale contributions to DFW ozone as part of the April 17th meeting. This was the study recently featured by Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe in the Denton Record Chronicle:
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.
If this one fails, another new air plan will not be due until at least 2019 or 2020 at the earliest. This is our only chance until then to affect the gas industry over a wide area instead of just one permit or one city at a time. Let's try to make it count.
DFW Anti-Smog Plan Strategy Meeting
Sunday April 6th 2-5 pm
Texas Campaign for the Environment Offices –
3303 Lee Parkway #402 • Dallas, TX 75219 – across from Lee Park
Hosted by St. Rep. Lon Burnam and Downwinders at Risk
DFW Air Plan Committee Meeting – open to the public
10 am to 12 noon
Thursday April 17th
North Central Texas Council of Governments
616 Six Flags Drive, Arlington – across the street from the amusement park
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.
It's only a proposal, but the Obama Administration's plan to cut sulfur in gasoline is aimed primarily at drastically reducing smog-forming Nitrogen Oxide, Volatile Organic compounds and Particulate Matter, the major pollutants that causes DFW to have such bad "ozone seasons." Would it reduce it enough to finally put the region in compliance with the Clean Air Act? Good question.
Sulfur content in gasoline would drop from the current standard of 30 ppm to 10 ppm by 2017 – one year before the compliance deadline for the tougher 75 parts per billion national ambient air ozone standard. That's not a coincidence. The EPA hopes that this initiative is going to drive urban ozone clean-up throughout the country, even in stubborn dirty air hot spots like DFW, which hasn't been in compliance with a smog standard since it was created over 20 years ago.
Along with new stricter emission standards for cars that have already been implemented, the pollution from cars will be coming down over the next decade to historic-per-vehicle lows. Since forever, the state of Texas and local officials have put almost all the blame for DFW's poor air quality on cars. So does this mean that we might actually have a chance to breathe safe and cleaner air, by say, 2020?
First, there's the question of continued growth. If per-car emissions go down, but you're importing 120,000 more cars every year into North Texas, the decreases in emissions are being canceled out to some degree. In this respect, DFW has been its own worst clean air enemy. By attracting new residents year after year and, for the most part, not creating successful transportation options other than private vehicles, the Metromess dooms itself to more total car pollution.
Then there's the climate. Everyone knows how unbearably hot it can get in DFW during July, August and September. That heat and sunlight is one reason we have a smog problem – it chemically transforms the Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) into ozone. What if it gets hotter, and drier? When the ground can't cool off at night and you start out with high morning temperatures that will only get worse by 5 pm, you know it's going to be a bad air day. The more days like that, the harder it's going to be to have safe and legal air despite the changes in engine design and fuel specs. So climate change could rob us of some of those automobile reductions.
If the last couple of years are any indication, you also have to wonder how much of those vehicle changes will be lost on DFW because we live in the Barnett Shale. 16,000 gas wells that are relatively short-term air polluters are being supplemented with more processing infrastructure like compressors, refineries, and pipelines that are year round polluters. Last year's Houston Advanced Research Consortium study estimated the impact of even a single compressor or flare to be as much as 3-10 ppm within five to ten miles, something it would take thousands of cars to accomplish. Even if those cars aren't there anymore, or their emissions make them less of a clean air threat, you have these decentralized major sources taking up the slack. This is one reason why the state itself told EPA that last year there was more VOC air pollution coming from oil an gas sources in North Texas than all the area's on-road cars and trucks, and a large contributing cause to why air quality has been getting worse in DFW over the last two years.
It's not just the number of these facilities but their physical location as well. The more the gas industry moves eastward, the more of the DFW core urban area is "downwind" of these sources, the more the pollution from these facilities combines with car emissions and other urban sources, and the longer they take to leave the now 10-county "non-attainment area," meaning they linger, exposed to sunlight and heat, and have more opportunity to create high levels of ozone. If you have more flares and compressors within 1 to 3 miles of one of 18 or so state air monitors – you will probably begin to see higher ozone readings as a result of their operation – as you have the last couple of years. Most of these pipelines and processing facilities have come online only since 2006.
And that's just in the North Texas area. There's evidence to suggest that the gas industry's building-out to the southeast – or upwind – of DFW is also affecting our air quality. In the same way that Houston's air pollution is said to make our initial "background" ozone levels higher, so too the 60-100 compressors in Freestone County, about 90 miles southeast of Dallas also feed their under-regulated "Standard Permit" pollution into the DFW urban mix. As does the Haynesville Shale gas play itself, as do the remaining east and central Texas coal plants and so forth. If sources to the south and east continue to increase their emissions, it means DFW starts from further and further behind, so that even if cars get cleaner, they might not get so clean so fast as to compensate for this imbalance.
Then there's the "fire hose" effect of the three Midlothian cement plants sitting so close to one another as to create one large super plume that's usually pointed toward the DFW urban core most of "ozone season." Because of citizen efforts, those cement kilns are substantially cleaner in 2013 than they were as recently as 2008. All but one wet kiln is closed, and that one is due to shut down next year. None are burning hazardous waste. But they're still the largest stationary sources of pollution in North Texas – including emitting copious amounts of NOx and VOCs – and they can still impact monitor readings miles and miles away. It's unclear what impact the burning of newly-permitted "non-hazardous" industrial wastes like car parts and plastics in the Midlothian kilns will have on the formation of smog-forming pollution.
EPA estimates an 80% drop in VOC and NOX pollution from cars as a result of its new low-sulfur fuel rule. That's steep. Remove that amount of pollution from all DFW's cars and trucks, and you'd expect to see a substantial improvement in air quality. That's what you'd expect. But, depending on a lot of other variables the state and federal government may or may not be interested in fixing, it could take more than this proposal to bring DFW into compliance with the new 75 ppb ozone standard that is now the federal definition of safe and legal air.