For almost a year, Mansfield residents have been trying to rewrite their city's drilling ordinance to better reflect the science surrounding the public health consequences of heavy industry taking place so close to people. During this entire time, and countless appearances before their city council, there has not been one Mansfield citizen who came forward and defended the current approach.
But now that the Mansfield council is ready to act on a new ordinance, the gas industry is doing exactly what it's always accusing their opponents of doing, sending outsiders in to invade the town and spread misleading information. And they're doing it in a big, desperate way. Let's just review what's happened in the last couple of weeks:
Industry hired a sleazy push polling firm to conduct a Mansfield campaign by phone that purposely misleads about the impact of the revisions to the ordinance being sought and makes personal attacks on the residents pursuing those revisions.
Sent in trade association speakers from Austin and Fort Worth to Mansfield to further mislead the business community about the revisions being sought.
Set up an e-mail site where industry employees, no matter where they live, send their comments to the Mansfield City Council, in opposition to any revisions.
And last night, (Sunday) the industry released a "study" purporting to show how safe the existing 600 foot setback was in Mansfield.
And these are just the things we know about right now. Having seen the huge multi-well Edge Resources permit get temporarily, but unexpectedly, tabled in January, the industry wasn't about to take any chances on seeing that happening again in their own back yard. So they've thrown everything and the kitchen sink into the Mansfield fight.
Of course, this reaction is a tremendous complement to the efforts of the intrepid Mansfield Gas Well Awareness group, that has, oh who knows, maybe a millionth of the budget the industry has already spent on these efforts. That the gas industry should be so frightened by calls for "responsible drilling" and more protective measures that have numerous precedents in the region tells you all you need to know about their insecurity post-Denton. It's almost comical.
Let's just take the latest effort that the Energy in Depth guys are generously calling a "study." Forget that if an environmental group were offering up such a thing, they'd be the first to point out its obvious bias. But of course, that objection disappears entirely when they fund the results. All of a sudden its a paragon of virtuous objective science. And mind you, these results were funded by the very gas operator who's well emissions are being sampled. No conflict of interest there.
Forget also that they're so proud of this work that they released it on a Sunday, after hours, the day before the Mansfield City Council takes up consideration of a new gas drilling ordinance. It's almost like they wanted to minimize the scrutiny of the thing.
Also put aside that this thing is not peer-reviewed or journal published – because the "science" is so poorly done that it could never pass review and get published in anything but an Energy In Depth blog post.
Also discount the love industry has for for testing levels of contaminants in the air versus its utter contempt for testing people and health. If you're going to claim as your working hypothesis that certain levels of contamination are completely harmless, and that anything that falls below certain levels is benign, then why not put that hypothesis to the test by performing an epidemiological study? But no, you see no such studies coming from industry, because they don't want to test that hypothesis.
One type of study is top, down. It looks at the levels of poisons in the air, and assumes that if they don't exceed the levels deemed dangerous by the regulatory arm of the industry , the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, then everything must be hunky dory.
The other is bottom-up. It looks at the health of people who live adjacent to the facility releasing the poisons and determines whether their health is worse than those who don't live in close proximity to polluters, whether they are receiving officially sanctioned levels of poisons are not.
The reason the second type of study is a truer snapshot of reality is because we keep finding out that levels of poisons we thought were safe turn out not to be safe at all. Go back even 20 years to the Exide lead smelter in Frisco, or 30 years to the RSR lead smelter in Dallas. Regulators and industry were routinely saying that levels of lead being released by these facilities were "safe." As it turns out, they were not. In fact, science now says there's no level of exposure to lead that cannot do harm to a person, particularly a child.
This learning curve can be applied to many, many types of chemical exposures over the last few decades, including Benzene, and other poisons routinely released by the gas industry. And it's why industry never wants to test its hypothesis about "safe" levels of things in the air with studies of what the actual health of people who live near their facilities is really like.
In reality, the best epidemiological studies to date, those that ARE done by third parties and ARE peer-reviewed an journal published, all conclude that living near gas mining operations increases the likelihood that you'll get sick. That's the state of the science. It's the same kind of science that proved cigarette smoking causes cancer. And that's why industry wants to stick to telling you about how safe the levels of poisons are in the air.
But forget all of that. Let's just take this "study" thing at face value. There was a 100 minutes of sampling of the air in 2012 at a gas pad site before drilling started, and in 2014, there were three 30 minute samplings of air around 600 feet away from the pad site after drilling had begun, and one sampling site well away from the pad to function as a background reading. That's it. That's the entirety of the study: the comparison of this "before" and "after" short term sampling.
Now if you were a high school chemistry nerd looking for a shot in the local science fair, you might insist that the procedures and testing protocol be the same for the before and after sampling. And you'd be right. But this study didn't bother.
In 2012, the sampling looked at Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), Sulfur Compounds and Formaldehyde "and other Carbonyl Compounds." In 2014, the sampling only looked at VOCs. so, only one-third of the original 2012 testing was duplicated. You'd think they were trying to intentionally ignore some poisons or something.
But it gets better. There were 15 separate VOCs sampled for in 2012, but only six, (less than half and only barely more than a third), of those were sampled for in 2014. In other words, the 2014 sampling not only left out two-thirds of the 2012 contaminant categories, it left out most of the chemicals in the one category it did sample.
In 2012, you had a total of 100 minutes of sampling of air in the middle of the pad site. In 2014, you had three 30-minute samplings of air 600 feet away from the pad site. They couldn't even replicate the sampling time.
As Texas Sharon has already pointed out, you might want to do your sampling with the same general kinds of weather – circumstances that might promise a representative sample. But no, not for this "study." There was only a trace of rain recorded at the site in 2012, but between half an inch of rain and two and a half inches of rain in the 2014 sampling. Of course, rain being in the air and all, that could affect your air sampling results.
The average wind speed was 6 to 11 mph in 2012, while in 2014, it was, well, the second report really doesn't say what the average wind speed was. It just says that the wind speed varied from 0 to 21 along with wind direction. But who needs details for real science right?
In 2014, none of the background samples were the highest levels of exposure found, that is, the highest readings of all chemicals found were downwind of the pad site.
Of the six VOCs sampled for in both 2012, and 2014, three were significantly higher in 2014.
Benzene was almost 4 times higher in 2014: .13 vs .49.
Toluene was almost three times higher in 2014: .35 vs .91.
Methyl Ethyl Ketones increased by a third: from .53 to .72.
And mind you this was in the rain with gusts up to 21 mph. Only m,p Xylene and Carbon Disulfide were lower in 2014.
In all, these chemicals were detected despite the crappy methodology used:
- Benzene, 1,2,4‐trimethyl‐
- Benzene, 1,3,5‐trimethyl‐
- Benzene, 1,3‐dichloro‐
- Benzene, 1,4‐dichloro‐
- Carbon disulfide
- Carbon Tetrachloride
- Ethane, 1,1,2,2‐tetrachloro‐
- Ethane, 1,1,2‐trichloro‐1,2,2‐trifluoro‐ (Freon 113)
- Furan, tetrahydro‐
- Methyl Butyl Ketone (MBK)
- Methyl Ethyl Ketone (MEK)
- Methyl Isobutyl Ketone (MIBK)
- Methyl Methacrylate
- Methylene Chloride
- Trichloromonofluoromethane (Freon 11)
That's reassuring right? That's what the industry folks are saying, because guess what, they're all at levels below what TCEQ says are OK for you to breathe – for a total of 30 minutes per sample. Unfortunately, most of us have a hard time breaking our habit of breathing all the time. Everyday. For years on end.
Look, you don't need to be a scientist to know how full of holes this slap dash attempt at CYA actually is. Industry is just throwing one thing after another up on the wall and hoping it sticks for the time it takes for the Mansfield City Council to justify its rejection of the citizens' revisions. Especially the 1500 setback originally requested.
Industry keeps saying that this distance amounts to a "defacto" ban of drilling, but that's clearly not the case in Mansfield. It's own literature touts the fact that a rig can be more than a mile away from the gas deposit its mining. You can put a rig in an industrial zoning tract and still reach a pocket of gas underneath a neighborhood without the surface components being anywhere near each other.
So what's the real reason industry oppose these setbacks for heavy industry that would be more than appropriate for any other kind of heavy industry? It's because the gas industry doesn't want to be grouped with lead smelters, and cement plants, and refineries and other kinds of heavy industry. It operates under an industrial exceptionalism that's unique in the modern era. It wants to be viewed as the kindly, well-landscaped heavy industrial polluter. Because when you start seeing it differently, all the carefully-constructed mythology surrounding its operations becomes transparent – just like it did with lead smelters, cement plants and refineries.
Because of its massive infusions of cash and resources overwhelming Mansfield in the last couple of weeks, the industry may indeed forestall the inevitable a little longer in what it considers a jurisdiction that's bought and paid for several times over. But science marches on – the real sort – and it's not going to be very kind to this industry in the longer run. Even the Marlboro Man had to hang up his spurs. It's just a matter of time before this industry is viewed as just another nasty polluting cause of illness, even by those who've benefited from it the most.
We must be doing something right.
Last Thursday, Energy in Depth, the national PR arm of the oil and gas industry, singled out Downwinders at Risk for our support of longer setbacks between people and gas industry facilities in Mansfield and other North Texas cities.
EID calls these setbacks, now passed in DISH, Denton, Southlake and Dallas, "defacto bans" because they require wells and compressors to be anywhere from 1000 to 1500 feet from homes, schools, park and other "protected uses" – to use city zoning lingo.
But of course these setbacks are defacto bans only because industry wants them to be – not because there are any technical obstacles to them reaching the gas underneath these cities due to distance. Gas operators can now punch a hole and reach deposits up to at least a mile or two away from where they place their rig on the surface. That's more than three 1500-foot setbacks end-to end. Operators have to spend more to drill to get that gas, but that's the price they pay for trying to place heavy industry in the middle of residential areas, parks, or near schools – something most cities don't allow when it comes to hazardous waste incinerators, chemical plants or landfills. Part of the problem is the inherent arrogance of the gas industry's position – it wants to pollute like a heavy industry, but it doesn't want to be regulated like one.
You know the folks in Corporate are getting worried when these things pop up on the Energy in Depth agenda. They understand their much-beloved "Fort Worth model" of less protective 600-foot setbacks and looser regulations in now under organized assault. While the rest of us see a constant barrage of new studies coming out every month emphasizing the dangers to human health of proximity to gas facilities, the industry wants time to stop in 2010, before we knew so much. But time marches on. And so does knowledge, and then public opinion.
Mansfield is deep into the Shale. It shares a border with Ft. Worth, unofficial headquarters for the Barnett Shale Energy in Depth crowd. A rejection of Cowtown's approach to regulating the gas industry here would be a major setback to the industry. The stakes are high. Just in the last week, two national publications, a subscription-only national newsletter called Environment and Energy Daily, and the Center for Public Integrity, have posted stories on the Mansfield fight. They've hit a nerve. That's why Energy in Depth is writing about it.
Getting criticized by EID is recognition that the partnership between Mansfield Gas Well Awareness and Downwinders at Risk is having an impact. We consider is a badge of honor. Our only regret is that it came too late to be used in our traditional end-of-year fundraising letter. Because after months of frustration, Mansfield residents are finally getting the attention they and their complaints deserve from their city council and the media. It's a national fracking fight hotspot. That's not an accident. That's good organizing.