Jim Schutze at the Dallas Observer came across an interesting piece of video the other day. It was the deposition of former Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm in the on-going lawsuit between jilted gas driller Trinity East and the City.
In their cross-examination, lawyers for Trinity East are asking Suhm about a secret (at least to the Council and the public) 2008 Memorandum of Understanding between the two parties trading Special Use Permits for gas drilling and production sites the company wanted to access on City-owned flood plain and park land – despite prohibitions on drilling in those places at the time of the agreement – in return for $19 million in upfront leasing payments.
Trinity East's lawyers want Suhm to say the agreement "guaranteed" the permits, and when the Plan Commission subsequently voted to deny them, and the City Council lacked the super-majority to override that denial, the City, by way of its agent in this matter Mary Suhm, defaulted on the agreement.
City of Dallas lawyers want Suhm to say Trinity East executives knew the drilling sites were off-limits at the time they signed the memo and, despite paying the City of Dallas $19 million before they got their permits, the company knew it was not a sure thing. According to the City's lawyers, what Trinity got was precisely what Suhm promised in the agreement: her best efforts to maneuver the company's permits through City Hall bureaucracy.
The crux of this back and forth comes at about the 4:30 point of the five minute video when Trinity East's lawyer, on behalf of his client, asks, "What is it they get for their $19 million dollars?"
Suhm says Trinity East "got the right to apply" for SUP permits.
But those permits cost considerably less than $19 million. What was Trinity East really paying for with those leasing checks, and did they get their money's worth?
Allow us to defend Mary Suhm.
When Trinity East wrote those checks, Suhm was riding high as City Manager and her command over Council affairs was already legend, especially as she negotiated the city budget through very tight times. Trinity knew the signature of a mere elected official was not sufficient. Those come and go at City Hall with hardly anyone noticing. It wanted the boss's John Hancock on the document and the boss was Mary Suhm.
Besides a perfectly legal and hefty bribe when the City needed it during the Great Recession, Trinity was investing in the power of Mary Suhm and her relationships with the Powers-That-Be. The company had every confidence as the ring master of the downtown circus, Suhm could make things happen that otherwise wouldn't happen. She was in control.
Trinity East wasn't wrong – in 2008. Had they pursued their permit requests in the next one to three years, there's every likelihood Trinity East would have received them.
But the company waited until 2011.
What had happened in those intervening three years?
There was a drilling backlash beginning to reach full volume in the Barnett Shale, aided by a new national awareness of fracking as it spread to other parts of the country. Josh Fox's "Gasland" came out in 2010 and was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011. Burning tap water replaced a folksy Tommy Lee Jones as the face of gas drilling in North Texas. Citizen groups were sprouting in every city with drilling fighting for larger buffer zones and more pollution controls. There were stories in the media all the time. Because no health or environmental studies had been done on urban fracking, all kinds of new ones were launched or just being reported on for the first time.
In light of the new controversy, Councilwoman Angela Hunt helped drive the City to convene a gas drilling task force, giving residents a chance to organize around the issue before Trinity East even applied for their permits. Every concern – air, water, even earthquakes – that would later become ammunition for opponents showed up in this task force process first.
Scott Griggs ran for Dallas City Council from one of the districts targeted by new gas drilling permits and won on an anti-drilling platform against an incumbent. He joined Hunt as a fierce critic of Dallas urban drilling. Neighborhoods were showing new muscle.
And so the stage was set for more of an uphill fight than what Trinity probably would have confronted in 2010.
Mary Suhm must have taken note of some of this and sighed when Trinity finally put in for its permits. Now they show-up?
Still, let the record show she put on a stiff upper lip and gave 110% to the cause of getting Dallas City Hall to approve Trinity East's permits. She contorted bureaucracies. She muscled appointees and council members alike. She and her staff worked overtime to try to subvert every move of the growing opposition to Trinity East's permits. When the company lost, it wasn't because Mary Suhm didn't pull out all the stops, but despite the fact she did.
Now, we're pretty sure this is a defense the City of Dallas lawyers don't want to use, but we offer it up here in case they need to break the glass and begin building firebreaks in court to keep from paying back the $19 million.
These are only the most egregious examples residents know about.
2011 Gas Drilling Task Force
In retrospect, it's easy to see Suhm's manipulation behind the last-minute Task Force endorsements of park and flood plain drilling. And when we say last-minute, we mean it.
Task Force members had already voted to keep the prohibition against drilling in these areas at a previous business meeting. The last meeting of the Task Force was supposed to be a pro forma affair that would ratify all previous recommendations and send them along to Council. Task Force member attendance was therefore down. This is when Task Force Chairwoman and former city council member Lois Finkelman chose to spring new votes on these two issues – and these two issues only – and won a reversal on each. Not only of the Task Force positions – but of current city policy, which of course didn't allow drilling in either area then.
Many excuses were used to justify this re-examination and re-vote that day, but none of them were the truth. Finkelman and staff were doing Suhm's bidding, and she was looking out for Trinity East. While it's not clear if Finkelman knew about Suhm's secret agreement, you can be sure Suhm, or someone on her behalf, made it clear to Finkelman it was VERY important to get these exemptions. Finkelman had been a friend to the clean air movement and other environmental causes during her tenure on the Council in the 1990's, but caved because of her relationship with Suhm, a belief she was helping the City out of a jam, or some other reason. At the end of the day, she weakened proposed city policy in accordance with what Trinity East wanted.
This is certainly something Trinity East got for its $19 million.
2012 Xmas Plan Commission Hearing on Trinity East Permits
Scheduled on December 20th, 2012, this was the first time gas drilling permits had been voted on for Dallas in three years, or pre-national outrage. It occurred before the Task Force recommendations had been considered and adopted into policy. In other words, after a call to reform its outdated drilling ordinance, and after a special Task Force had already been convened and issued its recommendations, Dallas was now about to grant three new permits, including one for a compressor station and refinery, under the old ordinance it was trying to replace. What was the rush? Why not wait and approve new permits until after the Task Force recommendations are written into a new ordinance? Because that would cause further public debate. More debate would highlight the problems of drilling in sensitive areas like park land and flood plains – still off limits in Dallas at the time.
In a transparent attempt to limit public awareness and participation even more, the City decided to hold this important hearing only five days before Christmas. Again, in retrospect, this has Mary Suhm's fingerprints all over it. And it almost worked. But just enough citizens showed up, representing enough well known groups and neighborhood organizations, and citing just enough new facts that had changed the situation since 2008 to win the climatic vote, 7 to 5 at 7:30 pm that evening. It was uncertain which way the decision would go right up until the very end.
Showing-up expecting to lose, instead citizens were elated. Overturning the denial would take a super majority of 12 votes on the Council – something that even then seemed unlikely. Citizens thought they had won. Mary Suhm had tried her best to rig the system, but the rigging failed. She tried again.
January- February 2013 Plan Commission "Reconsideration Vote" on Previous Permit Denial
Because she'd lost the December Plan Commission vote and knew she might not be able to get the 12 votes on the Council to overturn, Suhm had to do something creative. Viola! The Plan Commission would have a vote to "reconsider" their denial of Trinity East's permits only 21 days earlier. Nobody could remember the last time the Plan Commission even took such a vote. It was unprecedented. It was also Mary Suhm's handiwork.
That do-over decision came at a "special meeting" of the Plan Commission on January 10th, with a 6 to 5 vote to indeed take another vote on Trinity East's permits. This outcome, done under heavy police presence and with no public participation allowed, spurred one of the most iconic moments at Dallas City Hall in recent years – a 3 to five minute spontaneous standing crowd chant of "Shame."
You can see the speed at which Suhm is moving behind the scenes to engineer a better outcome after her unexpected defeat before Christmas. She's doing exactly what she promised Trinity East she would do. She's working the levers. Making things happen that would never otherwise happen. But now, it's costing her more to do so. The contortions of the system necessary to get the permits through are getting more twisted and harder to pull off gracefully. She's gone from talks with friends behind closed doors to forcing awkward "do-over" votes. It was obvious to the public there was something special about these Trinity East permits. Company officials had been dropping hints about some sort of an agreement with the City. Mayor Rawlings said permitting these sites "were a done deal" – although he didn't say why. It was getting messy.
Finally, on February 7th, the day the Plan Commission had scheduled the "do-over" vote, the Dallas Observer broke the story on the Suhm-Trinity East agreement. It was now clear what was driving the favoritism behind the treatment of the Trinity East permits by City Hall – going all the way back to the last-minute reversal of the Task Force, to the Christmas time hearing, to the pending "reconsider vote."
The timing could not have been worse for Suhm. We'll never know what the vote to reconsider might have been were there no headlines pointing to a City Hall cover-up. She may have thought she had the votes to keep the Trinity East permits alive. But with the story breaking that very day, the spotlight was too bright on the Plan Commission to take a new vote. Citizens won a reprieve and eventually a victory as the Commission requested the City Council deal with changing the current prohibitions against parkland and floodplain drilling before asking them to violate current ordinances again. That never happened. Instead, the three Trinity East permits were again denied by the Plan Commission in March 2013, albeit by razor-thin 8 to 7 and 9 to 6 margins.
And that was that. Suhm was gone in four months. Officially it wasn't because of the cover-up of the Trinity East agreement, but of course everyone knew it was because the whole thing was headed to court one way or the other.
Although the Mayor tried to rally 12 votes on the Council to overturn, he couldn't do it. The prospect of the kind of rolicking citizen protests keeping the Plan Commission on the 6 o'clock news showing up at a Council Meetings could not have helped his cause at this point.
Urban fracking opponent Philip Kingston had replaced Hunt on the Council, Griggs was still there, and they were joined by enough other council members (Sandy Greyson, Monica Alonzo, Carolyn Davis, and Adam Medrano) to insure the Plan Commission vote would prevail.
At the end of the day, Trinity East walked away empty-handed. but make no mistake about it. Mary Suhm did all she could to subvert the system for Trinity East.
Had the Dallas Observer not revealed the secret agreement, she might have even won the day for the company and still be City Manager. Was it $19 million worth of subversion? At today's inflated rates, who knows? But other than funding a small army and declaring herself dictator of the Drilling Republic of Dallas, she did all she could.
If you're Trinity East you can complain about the outcome, but you can't complain about her effort. There were too many variables out of her control for once. Not the least of which was a vigorous, rowdy, neighborhood-based movement against urban fracking in Dallas that was taking the fight to the public square…and winning. Sometimes, even the most powerful City Manager is on the wrong side of history.
As its way of giving Denton residents an industrial size middle finger, the Denton Record Chronicle is reporting that Vantage Energy is preparing to begin fracking in the city on May 27th. The company's announcement came a day after Governor Abbott signed a new law prohibiting local governments from banning fracking, or, really, doing much of anything to hinder whatever the hell gas companies want to do in a city.
Usually, new laws take effect the following September 1st after a session, but the Governor and industry wanted to make sure they was no summer of doubt holding-up their smack down. Until yesterday, Denton city representatives were sounding prepared to continue defending their ban from industry court challenges, but the new law keeps them from being able to file preliminary injunctions to halt resumption of fracking itself.
Because the Vantage site sit on the edge of town and is more than 1200 feet from a "protected use," like a home, the new activity is not a direct challenge to Denton's off-set regulations, or the ambiguous lynch-pin language of "commercially reasonable" driving the newly-signed legislation. And because the Vantage operation was under way when the city declared a year-long moratorium on new fracking in 2014, it could ask for, or assume it has, a hardship case under that local rule.
So only 200 days or so after it took effect the disassembling of Denton's fracking ban will begin. Because it can.
After it was clear the legislation would become law, most citizen observers expected such a demonstration of political spite by industry, although many were predicting it would be lead by Eagle Ridge's resumption of fracking in the original neighborhood by the UNT stadium that kicked off the entire controversy. This first baby-step back into town isn't quite so in-your-face, but it may be opening the doors.
What is the appropriate response by angry Denton residents to this news in the short term? Is it a picket line outside the site's fence? That would certainly attract media for a day but it wouldn't have much impact on the operators. Is it civil disobedience to stop the trucks from entering or leaving the site? That would get even more attention, but unless you have wave after wave of demonstrators lined-up and organized, this too seems like it's a temporary inconvenience rather than a real threat. On the other hand, if this is not the time and place to register your discontent by risking arrest, what does such a place and time look like?
There are lots of rumors about a court challenge to the new state legislation, but that will take years to play out in the courts, and remember, unless there's a constitutional challenge, they'll be Texas state courts, where the judges are all elected, not appointed.
The choices facing Denton residents are the same facing every other group of concerned fracktivists in the state right now – they're just facing them sooner. No option looks very satisfying. Most cities are cowering at the thought of enacting new off-sets or rules and taking on industry and running up millions in legal bills. Individual nuisance suits against operators offer some hope to the most extreme examples, but not necessarily to victims as a class. Legal challenges to the state law itself offer a very long maze of trials and rulings. Up to now, the way citizens have organized themselves has not been conducive to national relief and even if that weren't true you have an Administration relying on the fracking boom for much of its energy policy and so reluctant to crack down on it. Incrementalism has never seemed so incremental.
New strategies are needed, but right now nobody can't see clearly what those will be. One thing you can count on however. When citizens are frustrated and angry over being shat on involuntarily, and you don't allow them to express that anger and frustration into what they believe to be meaningful mechanisms for change, you back them into a corner. Take away the reasonable options, and suddenly, the "unreasonable" ones are the only ones available and they have nothing left to lose in taking them. Just Google "Chinese parents + pollution" and see what kind of tactics you push people into pursuing when they don't have a system that responds to their real and present dangers.
Not many people remember the modern American anti-toxics movement was born with a hostage crisis.
Love Canal was a toxic dump for chemical waste used by the Hooker Chemical Company in the 1950s in Niagara Falls, New York. In the next 20 years two schools and 900 homes were built on or near Love Canal. A young housewife, Lois Gibbs, lived there, and led a precedent-setting fight against the federal government to get all the families relocated.
At one point in 1980 when EPA officials visited the community, Lois Gibbs and her group refused to let the officials leave until the federal government promised to relocate the families. That's right, the group held the EPA officials hostage.
"Yes, I say we detained them for their own protection! That’s actually what got us the relocation. EPA had come down and told us all the things we couldn’t do, and then said we had chromosome breakage, and chromosome breakage means that we have a higher risk of cancer, birth defects, and miscarriages. But the thing that really broke the…sort of the straw that broke the camel’s back was when they said it’s not just about the adults in the community, these chromosome breakages could be in your children, and people just panicked. And they all came to this front lawn of the abandoned house where we had our offices, and they’re all looking at me, it’s like, “Lois, what are we going to do?” and I’m thinking like, “My goodness, I’m going to be a target here because people are so angry.” So I called the EPA representatives to the house to explain to the larger group, what does this mean? And when they got there, people said, “you know what? If it’s so darn safe for us, it can be safe for you. And we’re going to hold you in this house until President Carter does the right thing”.
So they were in the house and 500 people literally encircled the house and sat down, so they couldn’t get out. But after a while, it got really rowdy out there, people were feeding off of one another and they were getting angry. The FBI said they were going to come in and they were going to take the hostages from us if we don’t let them go. So we gave the White House…we let them go, kept them for five hours, and we let them go and gave the White House an ultimatum. They had until Wednesday at noon to evacuate us, or the hostage holding as it was coined, would look like a Sesame Street picnic to what we would do Wednesday at noon. We had no plan for Wednesday at noon! We had no clue what was going to happen Wednesday at noon, but I didn’t go to jail, and in fact, one of my hostages sent me a telegram – which young people today may not know that is – but sent me a telegram that said, “I hope you win everything you guys are fighting for. Thank you for the oatmeal cookies. Your happy hostage, Frank.”
People living or working near active natural gas wells may be exposed to toxic air pollution at higher levels than the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for lifetime exposure. That's the conclusion of a new study performed by scientists from Oregon State University and the University of Cincinnati, published in the March 26th edition of the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
Sampling at various sites adjacent or downwind of fracking wells in Carroll County, Ohio over a three-week period last February revolved around 62 Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs), a category of combustion-produced pollutants already linked too everything from childhood obesity to breast cancer, to lower IQ. Carroll County sits on top of the Utica formation, a gas rich shale deposit. The rural county is a hotspot of natural gas drilling and production, with more than one active well site per square mile.
“Air pollution from fracking operations may pose an under-recognized health hazard to people living near them,” said the study’s coauthor Kim Anderson, an environmental chemist with OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences.
The study was initiated by citizens in the area who wanted to more about the health risks they were facing from fracking. They approached Anderson her peers and and the scientist designed the study to include citizen participation. They placed air samplers on the properties of 23 volunteers living or working at sites ranging from immediately next to a gas well to a little more than three miles away.
Anderson's samplers are aluminum T-shaped boxes containing specially treated polyethylene ribbons that absorb contaminants in a similar manner to biological cells. Volunteers were trained in proper handling of samplers and documenting of data.After the study period, the volunteers packaged the samplers in airtight bags, labeled them and mailed them back to Anderson’s lab at OSU.
Even the lowest levels – detected on sites more than a mile away from a well – were higher than previous researchers had found in downtown Chicago and near a Belgian oil refinery. They were about 10 times higher than in a rural Michigan area with no natural gas wells.
By looking at the ratios of individual PAHs detected by the samplers, Anderson and her team were able to discern whether they came directly from the earth – a “petrogenic” source – or from “pyrogenic” sources like the burning of fossil fuels. The proportion of petrogenic PAHs in the mix was highest nearer the wells and decreased with distance.
The team also accounted for the influences of wood smoke and vehicle exhaust, common sources of airborne pyrogenic PAHs. Wood smoke was consistent across the sampling area, supporting the conclusion that the gas wells were contributing to the higher PAH levels.
The researchers then used a standard calculation to determine the additional cancer risk posed by airborne contaminants over a range of scenarios. For the worst-case scenario (exposure 24 hours a day over 25 years), they found that a person anywhere in the study area would be exposed at a risk level exceeding the threshold of what the EPA deems acceptable.
The highest-risk areas were those nearest the wells, Anderson said. Areas more than a mile away posed about 30 percent less risk.
Estimated worst-case maximum residential exposure was 2.9 in 10 000, which is above the U.S. EPA’s acceptable risk level of one in a million. According to the study's abstract, "This work suggests that natural gas extraction may be contributing significantly to PAHs in air, at levels that are relevant to human health."
The green dot is a 1500-foot radius around a medical waste transfer station. The red dots are 1500-foot radiuses around gas wells. The black dots are schools. Guess which dot the City Council and School Board are outraged about?
2nd Reading of Proposed Gas Drilling Ordinance
Mansfield City Council Meeting
Monday Night, March 16th 6:30 pm
City Hall, 1200 E. Broad Street
In the art of slight-of-hand, there's a classic maneuver called misdirection. It's when the trickster forces the attention of an audience to focus on one thing in order to distract its attention from another.
In 2015, the largest, most egregious act of political misdirection in North Texas is taking place in Mansfield. With its 60,000 residents surrounded on all sides by 200 plus gas wells, emitting tons of toxic air pollution in the middle of residential neighborhoods, and next to schools and parks, official outrage is focused on the siting of a single medical waste transfer station that will release…no toxic pollution at all.
Oh, the Redaway transfer station application has lots of salacious wording. It will take in tons of "animal waste, bulk blood, bulk human blood, bulk human body fluids, microbiological waste, pathological waste, sharps, and other health care-related items that come into contact with body fluids and/or blood) and non-hazardous pharmaceuticals." Nasty stuff. But it will take this waste, put it in one of three large steam autoclaves, sterilize it, and ship it out to be buried at municipal solid waste landfills elsewhere. All inside an enclosed structure. This isn't a disposal facility. This isn't an incinerator. It's a place where medical waste comes in, gets Martinized, and then gets shipped back out.
But wait, there's tons of storage and up to 50 trucks a day of come and go traffic. What if this is near a neighborhood or upwind of schools? You'd want this kind of facility far away from people. Like in an area zoned for industrial uses. Which it happens to be located in. The nearest school is over a mile away, the nearest residential neighborhood almost as far.
Yet even this distance is way too close for comfort for the City Council and School Board. They don't even want the transfer station in the city limits. For these officials, there's no setback far enough to be safe from the dangers of escaped body parts. They're outraged. They've passed resolutions condemning the facility. They've even protested to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality!
What exactly is the public health threat posed by the transfer station? It's not air pollution. The steam autoclaves emit so little pollution they aren't even required to have a permit. Nor is it water pollution. Everything drains into the city sewer system. It's the perceived threat of icky stuff like body parts and animal wastes and the accidental contamination from HIV-infected needles that fall off the trucks. In an industrial park. A mile away or more from the nearest school or neighborhood. Behind a fence, inside a building.
Meanwhile there are 206 gas wells strewn throughout the city, emitting half a ton, a ton, or maybe more air pollution a year depending on the age, design and activity. Carcinogens, Mutagens, Endocrine Disrupters. Many of these wells are within 1500 feet of neighborhoods and schools. Some are within 600 feet – the current setback required by the city. Some schools and neighborhoods are within 600 hundred feet of multiple wells. These wells routinely release toxic pollution. These wells pose a threat of accidental release or explosion or fire.
Taking a conservative estimate of half a ton of pollution a year, these 206 current wells could be releasing over 100 tons of air pollution a year. But 300 more are planned too. That's another 150 tons of air pollution. And that's not even counting the compressors, dehydrators, tanks etc. that go along with having that many wells in your town. 250 tons of air pollution is a lot.
So let's review. According to the Mansfield City Council and the Mansfield School Board, even though there are no emissions, and no disposal activity, and it's located in an industrial park, there's absolutely no appropriate distance between the medical waste transfer station and any neighborhood or school in the city. 600 feet, 1500 feet, 5280 feet – it doesn't matter. There is no such thing as a safe buffer zone from this facility. Zero tolerance.
On the other hand, 600 feet is more than a safe distance for proximity of neighborhoods and schools to heavy industrial activity that drills deep holes in the ground, pumps thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals into those holes under pressure, forces underground explosions and then tries to contain and process the resulting releases of gas and liquid coming back up through those holes. 600 feet is OK for constant exposure to toxic chemicals at "low levels." 600 feet is an appropriate distance in case of serious accident, because you're only dealing with highly flammable and explosive substances, not gross human blood.
Now, the more cynical among us would claim that this official misdirection is due to the fact that the city, school system, and property owners aren't getting a percentage of the tipping fees for the tons of waste passing through the transfer station the same way they're getting royalties from those hundreds of gas wells. Take the money out of the gas wells and they might not be allowed so close to people. Let the medical waste station cut property owners in on the action, and it too might be welcomed as a jobs creator.
But by any objective test of current and potential threat, gas wells trump the medical waste facility. Just one gas well pumps more pollution into the atmosphere in a year than the transfer station will in a decade.
On Monday night the Mansfield City Council will have its "second reading" for its proposed updating of the town's gas drilling ordinance. Concerned residents will continue to push for longer setbacks from homes and schools than the existing 600-feet the new ordinance reaffirms. They aren't asking to kick gas wells out of the city, the way the city is with the transfer station. They're just asking for the same level of protection afforded other North Texas towns like Dallas, Southlake and Flower Mound.
Setbacks are crucial because they're one of the few proactive measures that can be taken to avoid harm from a gas well or compressor, rather than reacting to it after the fact.
Longer setbacks prevent as many people from being exposed to as as much pollution, both routine and as a result of accidents, leaks and "blowdowns." The more distance there is between people and heavy industry, the fewer risks to public health. Fewer respiratory problems. Fewer nose bleeds. Fewer cancers. Fewer birth defects. Longer setbacks are a reasonable response to the science in 2015.
But the city and school board are holding fast. Zero tolerance for body parts. 600 feet for toxic pollution. That's why it's important for concerned residents to show up on Monday and call BS on this hypocrisy.
During the month long Ebola panic in the U.S., not one citizen died of the disease that dominated the headlines. However, if statistical evidence from the CDC is to be believed, probably close to 600 people died from the flu during those same four weeks. Which was the greater public heath threat?
There is something truly frightening in the medical waste application. It's the breakdown of land use within Mansfield. As it turns out, the city is "28.6% residential , 3.7% commercial, 3.7% industrial and warehouse, 4.9% parks, 4.3% public/semi public, and 13.3% gas wells and rights-of-way." Gas drilling now takes up more land use in Mansfield than all the commercial, industrial and park property combined. With 300 more wells to go, the city is looking more and more like a large industrial park with pockets of residential development instead of the other way around.
But don't worry about that. Be concerned about the building in the corner of the industrial park steam-cleaning blood, needles and body parts.
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.
(Mansfield) — Residents in this Fort Worth suburb seeking a more modern approach to gas industry regulation seemed to have hit a raw Barnett Shale nerve.
A decision last month by the city council to postpone permitting of a giant new multi-well and compressor facility in Mansfield, pending development of a new gas ordinance, has spurred the largest and most expensive industry PR offensive since the fight over the Denton fracking ban vote last November, including a city wide “push polling” campaign that contain ad hominem attacks on local advocates.
“I guess we should be flattered that our efforts have attracted so much attention from the national gas organizations,” said Tamera Bounds, one of the targets of the industry’s efforts. “But the fact is, this is a matter for Mansfield residents, and over the course of the last nine months as we’ve been working with the city council on drafting a new drilling ordinance, to our knowledge not one Mansfield resident has addressed the council in favor of the old ordinance. Now, at the last minute, these national trade groups show up and pretend their speaking on behalf of our local interests. They aren’t.”
Although Bounds group began meeting in June 2014, and a city wide forum on a new gas ordinance was held in December, it’s the unanimous January 26th tabling of Edge Resources’ huge, 34 well, compressor, dehydrator, and storage tank complex by the Mansfield city council on its third and final reading that apparently has the industry worried they’re losing their influence in a town so deep in the Barnett Shale.
On the eve of the first reading of the newly drafted ordinance this coming Monday, Mansfield residents are getting calls from a number registered to The Woodlands-based Promark firm asking them to take part in its “survey” on Mansfield drilling issues. Promark is a notoriously partisan company with a pockmarked reputation. In 2004, Promark’s polling tactics were investigated by the American Association of Public Opinion Research for unethical polling practices. According to the AAPOR, push polls are “an insidious form of negative campaigning, disguised as a political poll. 'Push polls' are not surveys at all, but rather unethical political telemarketing — telephone calls disguised as research that aim to persuade large numbers of voters and affect election outcomes, rather than measure opinions.”
That certainly describes the line of attacks that were posed as questions asked during the company’s Mansfield calls, including “If the ordinances are passed, did you know that the City taxes could be raised? Knowing this, would you support a new ordinance?” and “If ordinances are passed, did you know that schools would loose a lot of funding? Did you know that property taxes will go up?”
Despite these scare tactics disguised as a “survey,” no part of the ordinance would affect current facilities. It’s aimed only at new permits. Residents have requested better monitoring and enforcement as well as a more protective 1500-foot setback from homes, schools and other “protected uses” to replace the 600-foot setback requirement established in 2008.
Perhaps most disturbing are the personal nature of some of the push polling questions. For example it asks whether respondents “agree that the clean air activists are a nuisance to the city?” and then whether Mansfield Gas Well Awareness Group leader Bounds is “credible, somewhat credible, or not credible”
Besides Promark’s push polling, which no trade group has yet claimed responsibility for, industry representatives are also suddenly showing up in Mansfield trying to drum up supporters among the local business community.
This Friday, Austin-based Luke Legate of the “Joint Association of Oil and Gas Education Initiative” is speaking to the Mansfield Business Association. The Initiative is a state wide industry trade group alliance that includes the Texas Oil & Gas Association, Texas Royalty Council, Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners Association, Panhandle Producers and Royalty Owners Association, Texas Alliance of Energy Producers, Foundation for Energy Education, Texas Pipeline Association, Permian Basin Petroleum Association, and the South Texas Energy & Economic Roundtable. He’s never appeared before the Mansfield City Council.
Next Thursday, it’s Ed Ireland, Director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council speaking to the entire Mansfield Chamber of Commerce at the Walnut Creek Country Club. The BSEEC describes itself as “founded by consortium of leading Barnett Shale production companies.” He was invited to the December forum that kicked-off the review of the new ordinance, but has not appeared at any of the regularly scheduled council meetings where gas was a topic since then.
“What’s ironic is that these are the very groups that rush to claim that “outsiders” are somehow responsible for stirring up local residents concerns, when it’s actually the industry’s own poor track record on the ground that’s promoting our activism,” said Erik Orsak, another Mansfield citizen leader of Mansfield Gas Well Awareness. “After months of good-faith negotiations between the city and concerned residents, we see this last-minute massive top-down wave of attacks by national trade groups invading Mansfield without any previous local support in an a attempt to try and undermine that process. It’s these industry groups that are the outsiders.”
Monday’s city council meeting will feature the “first reading” of a proposed ordinance and include a public hearing on its contents. While Mansfield Gas Well Awareness members say they’ve been pleased with the progress on some issues of concern to them, two of the most important, reducing harmful emissions and longer setbacks, have not been resolved to their satisfaction. Last month, they reminded the city council that Mansfield officials originally called for 1000 foot setbacks in 2008, but those got reduced after intense industry lobbying.
In fact it was the owners of Edge Resources, the same company some residents think is behind this wave of new industry lobbying after their permit was temporarily tabled in January, that wrote in an April 2008 letter to the Mansfield Planning and Zoning Commission and suggested that schools should have shorter setbacks “because children are very mobile.”
“It would be a shame if Mansfield were to make the same mistake twice based on industry bullying” said Lance Irwin, a Mansfield Gas Well Awareness member and a frequent critic of the industry’s operation in town. “Mansfield’s future is its children, its schools and its neighborhoods. We need to protect them as best we can.”
Monday’s city council meeting begins at 6:30 pm at Mansfield City Hall, 1200 East Broad Street
Something strange happened on the way to losing the battle in order to win the war. The battle was won. At least for now.
It wasn't a permit denial. It wasn't a ban. It wasn't even a new ordinance. But the Mansfield Gas Well Awareness group pulled off their first significant victory at the council level Monday night when a third and final reading of a new 34 multi-well pad site, plus compressor, plus storage tanks, plus dehydrators, plus re-boilers, plus separators, gas-industrial-complex that seemed like a done deal only 30 days ago was unanimously tabled until new rules for drilling in the city are put in place later this year.
Edge Resources' original Special Use Permit, acquired in 2008 (before the passage of the current gas drilling ordinance with its 600-foot setbacks), and hosting 2 current wells, had expired over a year ago. Yet instead of going back through the Planning and Zoning Commission and applying for a new SUP, the company pursued an unusual side deal with the city council that would allow "renewal" of the site permit with the two wells, plus permission for an additional 34 wells, a compressor, and a lot of other facilities only 3-400 feet from current homes – in exchange for setting-aside some acreage next to this gasland extravaganza for "parkland." How could the council refuse?
Moreover, unpublicized negotiations for this swap were going on even as the council met on December 3rd to begin "an open dialogue" with the MGWA group at a special workshop to initiate a new gas drilling ordinance, including a request for a new setback of at least 1500 feet. No mention was made that night by any city official that the massive Edge Resources site reauthorization that undermined that request was in play. The first time residents learned about it was when it appeared on the council agenda the very next day for a "first reading,"re: approval.
Two weeks ago, the permit came up for a "second reading" and residents rallied. This time there was some news coverage and new opponents showed up at City Hall to speak against the renewal while a new ordinance was being considered. With gas prices at historic lows, the question was repeatedly asked, "What's the rush?"
In the glare of the spotlight for the first time, council members now sought new assurances from the company that the nice slide show about site development they were seeing actually represented what the city would be getting. Instead, all the company would say was that that level of industry best practices "could be deployed." With emissions from the proposed wells estimated at up to 13 tons per year alone, this was of more than passing interest to residents. City council members might have thought they heard real commitments, or maybe just pretended to hear them. Either way, the stage was set for final approval at the third reading at the end of the month.
Even though they were protesting the permit, Mansfield group members were so used to seeing their concerns discounted by an unresponsive council that they had no hope of actually stopping or delaying it. Still, they trudged on, wanting to turn this fight into an example of what was wrong with the current ordinance and get some mileage out of certain defeat. Lose the battle, win the war. They passed out fliers in surrounding neighborhoods, they met with individual council members, they sent out social media alerts. They put themselves in a position to be lucky, just in case.
On Monday night, more allies of the group came to City Hall for the third and final reading of the gas permit, along with opponents of a new medical waste transfer and sterilization facility that wants to set up in town. Now the council had a new problem. On the one hand it had a history of punting to the state over health concerns about drilling. Austin had the "experts" and the experts had claimed it was OK. On the other hand, those same Austin experts had now claimed the very, very unpopular newly-proposed medical waste facility was hunky-dory as well. What to do?
Getting tough in front of the crowd, the Council pressed Edge for promises it would abide by all provisions of a new gas ordinance save any new setback requirements (since the new wells would be even closer than the current 600 foot setback normally allows). Edge countered with a carefully and lawyerly-crafted statement that left them an out to such a promise, seemingly in contrast to what the company had committed to only two weeks earlier – but only if you weren't listening. Remember, those state-of-the-art practices "could be" deployed – not necessarily had to be.
It became painfully clear why the city needs all operators and all wells to adhere to a routine SUP process instead of working side deals on its own behind closed doors. Even so, last year such a permit request would have sailed through the council. This year, the organizing done by the Mansfield Gas Well Awareness Group made it harder for business as usual to take place. Much, much harder.
The Mayor and council members signaled their frustration over the lack of a clear yes or no commitment from Edge to go along with a new ordinance. After recessing into executive session and giving the company's lawyers almost an hour to work up the nerve to approve conditional acceptance, the council came back and still confronted the same kind of wiggle-room language they were trying to avoid. As a result, the "done deal" got undone at the last possible minute, and the council voted unanimously to table the third and final reading of the permit renewal until after adoption of a new gas drilling ordinance. For the first time in two years, Mansfield residents got what they had asked for when it came to a gas well permit.
It's only a delay. And the stubbornness of Edge's lawyers is as responsible as any thing else for the win. And the really big war over a new ordinance is about to start with most of the council seemingly unwilling to retreat from a "Fort Worth model" 600-foot setback. But better to start such a war with an unexpected victory in battle than a routine loss, plus a lesson about what can be accomplished if you work hard enough to be lucky.
Pending Permit for an 18% Increase in City’s Well Count Wasn’t Disclosed to Citizens or Media at Special December 3rd Workshop on Gas Regulations
What: Mansfield City Council to Consider Large new Gas Facility Permit, including New Compressor Station on Debbie Lane
When: Monday Night, January 12th 7 pm
Where: Mansfield City Hall, 1200 East Broad Street
Mansfield’s city council is scheduled to move forward tonight with a second hearing on a request from Edge Resources to build 34 additional gas wells and a new compressor station despite a pledge by the council in December to consider new ordinances designed to be more protective of public health, a process that is still ongoing and that concerned residents hope will reduce hazards posed by drilling within the city.
Although City Hall had been working with Edge Resources for months on a renewal of its expired 2008 Special Use Permit that would raise the city’s well count by 18%, the Mansfield City Council and staff didn’t disclose that information to residents or the media when it convened a special workshop to discuss a new gas drilling ordinance on December 3rd.
“It was very disappointing to know that while we were beginning good faith discussions on new ordinances with the Council, it had already made a decision to grant a second hearing to renew an expired permit that will significantly add to the number of wells and allows yet another compressor within city limits,” said Tamera Bounds, a Co-chair of of local citizen advocacy group, Mansfield Gas Well Awareness (MGWA).
City officials say they have no choice but to OK the renewal because the original SUP was filed before the city passed its current gas ordinance. But Bounds and others say the timing of council approval, and lack of transparency to the public about the permit makes the effort premature.
“Even if their hands are tied, they could wait until any revisions of the ordinance are in place and incorporate those changes into the Edge permit.” She specifically listed baseline air testing, vapor recovery, “flowback” control, and infrared camera monitoring as state-of-the-art features that every new gas facility permit should include.
Edge’s proposed permit calls for thirty-four additional wells to be drilled within 350 feet of homes near Debbie Lane with a new compressor and frack pond also constructed at the same site, where there are already two wells. Mansfield Gas Well Awareness is pushing for new ordinances with setbacks of at least 1500 feet between gas wells, compressors and homes.
Others were less circumspect in their criticism of what they called the council’s duplicity in dealing with residents. “It’s outrageous this pending permit wasn’t disclosed at the December 3rd council meeting called specifically to talk about how to regulate old and new gas facilities in Mansfield,” said Jim Schermbeck, Director of Downwinders at Risk, the local clean air group working with MGWA to change the city’s ordinance. “Even while City Hall representatives were talking about a dialogue with citizens to consider new regulations, they deliberately withheld notice about a huge new increase in gas drilling being requested.” He also called for a delay in council action on the permit until after a new ordinance was passed.
TCEQ Public Hearing on the new DFW Anti-Smog Plan
Thursday, January 15th 6:30 pm
Arlington City Hall, 101 W. Abram
Over the last two decades, we've seen some pretty lame DFW clean air plans produced by the state, but the newest one, scheduled for a public hearing a week from now, may be the most pathetic of the bunch.
From a philosophical perspective, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality stopped pretending to care about smog in DFW once Rick Perry decided to run for president around 2010 or so. Computer modeling was scaled back, staff was slashed, and the employees that were left had to be ideologically aligned with Perry's demand that no new controls on industry (i.e potential or existing campaign contributors) was preferable to six or seven million people continuing to breathe unsafe and illegal air.
TCEQ's 2011 anti-smog plan reflected that administrative nonchalance by concluding – in the the middle of the Great Recession – that consumers buying new cars would single-handedly deliver the lowest smog levels in decades. It did not. It went down in history as the first clean air plan for the area to ever result in higher ozone levels. The first, but maybe not the last.
This time around, it's not the cars themselves playing the role of atmospheric savior for TCEQ, but the fuel they'll run on. Beginning in 2017, the federal government is scheduled to introduce a new, low-sulfur gasoline that is predicted to bring down smog by quite a bit in most urban areas. Quite a bit, but not enough to reach the ozone standard of 75 ppb that's necessary to comply with the Clean Air Act by 2018. It's the gap between this official prediction and the standard where the state is doing a lot of hemming and hawing.
TCEQ staffers really did tell a summertime audience in Arlington that that estimated 2018 gap of between 1 and 2 ppb was "close enough" to count as a success. Now, you might give them the benefit of the doubt, but remember this is an agency that has never, ever been correct is its estimation of future ozone levels. After five attempts over the last two decades, TCEQ has never reached an ozone standard in DFW by the official deadline. Precedent says this plan won't even get "close enough."
Plus, we know getting "close" to 75 ppb isn't protecting public health in DFW. Even as this clean air plan is being proposed by Austin, the EPA is moving to lower the national ozone standard to somewhere between 60 and 70 ppb (There's a hearing on that at Arlington City Hall on January 29th). That new EPA ozone standard is due to be adopted by the end of this year. So this entire state plan is obsolete from a medical perspective. Instead of aiming for a level of ozone pollution closer to 70 ppb as soon as possible, it's not even getting down to a flat 75 ppb at all DFW monitors by 2018. It wil take an entirely new plan, and pulling TCEQ teeth, to do that much later. In other words, millions of people will have to wait as much as a five to seven years longer to get levels of air quality we know we need now in 2015.
What are the major flaws this time?
1. TCEQ is Using 2006 in 2014 to Predict 2018.
The EPA recommends that states use an "episode" of bad air days from the last three years – 2009-2013 – in trying to estimate what ozone levels will be three years from now. The more recent the data, the better the prediction.
TCEQ is ignoring that recommendation, relying on a computer model that's already nine years old. This has all kinds of ramifications on the final prediction of compliance. Instead of having more recent weather data, you have to "update" that variable. TCEQ doesn't have to compensate for the drought DFW is experiencing now or factor in a year like 2011 where the drought caused a worst case scenario for ozone formation.
TCEQ isn't using more recent data on how sensitive monitors are to Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) – the major kinds of pollution that cause smog . That's important because gas production in the Barnett Shale has put a lot more VOCs in the air. But instead of getting a more accurate post-drilling boom read on what's driving smog creation, the TCEQ is relying on a picture that starts out before the boom ever started.
The further you reach back in time for a model to predict future levels of smog, the fuzzier that future gets, and the less accurate the results. TCEQ is using a model that's twice to three times older than EPA guidance recommends. What are the odds that TCEQ estimates will be correct based on this kind of methodology?
2. TCEQ is Downplaying OIl and Gas Pollution
Citizens attending the air quality meetings in Arlington over the past year have seen the TCEQ try and hide the true volume and impact of oil and gas pollution at every turn. Instead of all the industry emissions being listed under the single banner of "Oil and Gas Pollution," the Commission has tried to disperse and cloak them under a variety of categories in every public presentation.
"Other Point Sources," a classification that had never been seen before, was the place where pollution from the 647 large compressor stations in DFW could be found – if you bothered to ask. "Area Sources" was where the emissions from the thousands of other, smaller compressors could be found – again, only if you asked. "Drilling" was separate from "Production." And despite other agencies being able to tease out what kind of pollution came from the truck traffic associated with fracking within their jurisdictions, the TCEQ never bothered to estimate how much of the emissions under "Mobile Sources" was generated by the Oil and Gas industry.
The reason the TCEQ has tried so hard to hide the true volumes of oil and gas pollution is because once you add up all of these disparate sources, the industry becomes the second largest single category of smog-forming pollution in DFW, second only to on-road cars and trucks (and remember many of those trucks are fracking-related). According to TCEQ's own estimates, oil and gas facilities in North Texas produce more smog-forming VOC pollution than all of the cars and trucks in the area combined, and more smog-forming NOx pollution than the Midlothian cement plants and all the area's power plants combined.
TCEQ is loathe to admit the true size of these emissions and place them side-by-side next to other, traditional sources, lest the public understand just how huge a impact the oil and gas industry has on air quality. Austin's party line is that this pollution isn't contributing to DFW smog – that it's had no impact on local air quality. But such a claim isn't plausible. If cars are a source of smog, and cement kilns and power plants are a source of smog, how can a category of VOC and NOx pollution dwarfing those sources not also be a source of smog? Think how much less air pollution we'd have if the Barnett Shale boom of the last eight years had not taken place?
In it's last public presentation in August, the TCEQ made the impact of oil and gas pollution clear despite itself. According to the staff, oil and gas emissions were going to be decreasing in the future more than they had previously estimated. As a result, a new chart showed that certain ozone monitors, including the one in Denton, would see their levels of smog come down significantly. It was exactly the proof of a causal link between gas and smog that TCEQ had been arguing wasn't there. Only it was.
In terms of forecasting future smog pollution, TCEQ is underplaying the growth of emissions in the gas patch. Everything it's basing its 2018 predictions on is years out-of-date, leftover from its last plan.
Drilling rig pollution is extrapolated from a 2011 report that counts feet drilled instead of the actual number of rigs. TCEQ predicts a decline in drilling and production in the Barnett Shale without actually estimating what that means in terms of the number of wells or their location. It also assumes a huge drop-off in gas pollution after 2009 that hasn't been documented by any updated information. It's only on paper.
While recent declines in the price of oil and gas have certainly put a damper on a lot of drilling activity, there's still a significant amount going on. Look no further than Mansfield, where Edge is now applying for permit to build a new compressor and dozens of new wells on an old pad.
In 2011, nobody was building Liquified Natural Gas terminals up and down the Gulf Coast for an export market the way they are now. Analysts say those overseas markets could produce a "second boom" in drilling activity between now and 2018, but the TCEQ forecasts don't take that into account.
Gas production pollution numbers – emissions from compressors, dehydrators, storage tanks – are even more tenuous. Every gas industry textbook explains that as gas plays get older, the number of lift compressors increases in order to squeeze out more product. Increase the number of compressors and you increase the amount of compressor pollution. But TCEQ numbers fly in the face of that textbook wisdom and predict a decline in compressor pollution because wells in the Barnett Shale are getting older!
The best analogy for how TCEQ is estimating oil and gas pollution is its poor understanding of where those thousands of smaller compressor are and how much pollution they're actually producing. No staff member at TCEQ can tell you how many of those compressors there are in the region – they literally have no idea and no idea of how to count them in the real world. There are just too many, their locations are unknown, and they were never individually permitted.
Instead, the TCEQ takes production figures from the Railroad Commission and guesses how many of those small compressors there are, as well as their location, based on where the RRC tells it production is going on in the Shale. Then staff guesses again about the emissions being emitted by those compressors, because there's no data telling them what those emissions actually are. In the end you have a series of lowballed guestimates, stacked one atop the other, presented as fact. It's smoke and mirrors.
3. TCEQ Isn't Requiring Any New Controls on Any Major Sources of Air Pollution
Like its previous 2011 DFW air plan, which resulted in an increase in North Texas ozone levels, TCEQ's new plan requires no new controls on any major sources of air pollution, despite evidence showing that such controls in smog-forming emissions from the Midlothian cement plants, East Texas coal plants, and Barnett Shale gas facilities could cut ozone levels significantly.
Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) is already used extensively in the cement plant industry in Europe to reduce smog pollution by up to 90%. Over a half dozen different plants have used the technology since 2000. The TCEQ's own 2006 report on SCR concluded it was "commercially available." Holcim Cement has already announced it will install SCR in its Midlothian cement plant. Yet the TCEQ makes no mention of this in its plan.
That's right, a cement plant in Midlothian has decided SCR is commercially viable, but the State is looking the other way and pretending this development in its own backyard isn't even happening. TCEQ is stating in its proposed plan that SCR just isn't feasible!
In 2013, a UTA Department of Engineering study looked at what happened if you reduced Midlothian cement plant pollution by 90% between 6 am and 12 Noon on weekdays. Ozone levels went down in Denton by 2 parts per billion. That may not seem like a lot, but in smog terms it's the difference between the Denton air monitor violating the 75 ppb standard under the TCEQ plan and complying with the Clean Air Act.
In 2012 a UTA College of Nursing study found higher rates of childhood asthma in Tarrant County "in a linear configuration" with the plumes of pollution coming from the Midlothian cement plants. SCR means less pollution of all kinds: smog, dioxins and the particulate matter the Nursing College thought was causing those increased rates of childhood asthma. By delaying the requirement that all the Midlothian cement plants install SCR by 2018, the state is turning its back on a problem that Cook Children's hospital described as "an epidemic."
The same is true of SCR in the East Texas coal plants. The technology is being used in other coal plants around the world and in the US to reduce smog pollution. There's no reason it shouldn’t be required for the dirtiest coal plants in Texas that impact DFW air quality. After decades of being out of compliance with the Clean Air Act, DFW is one of the places the technology is needed most.
Last year the Dallas County Medical Society, led by Dr. Robert Haley, petitioned the TCEQ to either close those coal plants or install SCR on them. The doctors' petition was rejected by TCEQ Commissioners and they were told their concerns would be addressed in the DFW air plan. They aren't. Those concerns, along with the proof they presented about the impact of the plants on local air quality, are being ignored.
Electrification of gas compressors is a commonly used technology that could cut smog pollution as well, and yet the TCEQ is not requiring new performance standards that would force operators of hundreds of diesel and gas-powered compressors in North Texas to switch to electricity.
A 2012 Houston Advanced Research Center study found that pollution from a single compressor could raise local ozone levels by as much as 3 to 10 ppb as far away as ten miles. There are at least 647 large compressor stations in the western part of the DFW area. Dallas and other North Texas cities have written ordinances requiring only electric-powered compressors within their city limits based on testimony from industry that electrification was a commonly used technology in the industry. And yet, TCEQ's official position is that electrification isn't feasible.
In ignoring these types of new controls the TCEQ is violating provisions of the Clean Air Act to implement "all reasonably available control technologies and measures" to insure a speedy decrease in ozone levels. Each of these technologies is on the market, being used in their respective industries, and readily available. Studies have shown that each of these technologies could cut ozone levels in DFW significantly, but the TCEQ is refusing to implement them. In doing so, many observers believe it's blatantly in violation of the law.
We don't expect TCEQ to change its position. That well has been poisoned for the foreseeable future. But we do expect a higher standard of enforcement from the Obama Administration EPA. That's why we're asking you to show-up at the public hearing and oppose this dreadful state air plan a week from now in Arlington. We need to demonstrate to the federal government that citizens are concerned about getting cleaner air now, not in the next plan or the one after that. Now. We need to put pressure on the EPA to reject this TCEQ plan, to either send it back to the drawing board or substitute one of its own. Without you showing up, that pressure isn't there.
Between now and Thursday – and all the way through January 30th, you can send prepared comments opposing the TCEQ plan to Austin and the EPA Regional Administrator with a simple click here – and add your own comments as well.
As a reward for coming over and venting your frustration, we'd like you to stay and party with us at the official "retirement party" of State Representative Lon Burnam, beginning at 7:30 pm just four blocks down the street. It's a roasting and toasting of the best friend environmentalists ever had in the Texas Legislature, as well as a fundraiser for Downwinders to continue our work to defend your air. JUST CLICK HERE FOR TICKETS.
Next Thursday you can support clean air two ways in one evening. Help us beat back a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad air plan, and then come celebrate the wonderful, righteous, very good work of a dedicated public servant. See you there.
No one really has any idea what's causing the "swarm" of earthquakes along the Irving Dallas border. What is known is that this is a new phenomenon. None of us who grew up here in the DFW area can ever remember having this kind of problem with the ground shaking – and certainly not with almost a dozen noticeable quakes in 24 hours.
Circumstantial evidence points to "human-induced seismicity" as the oil and gas industry folks call it, although one can't be certain. Ground zero for these earthquakes is along the Balcones Fault, about the oldest geographical feature in Texas – clocking in at one billion or so years old. It's the same fault that runs down Highway 67 and then I-35 by way of the limestone escarpment in Cedar Hill and Midlothian, the one the cement plants there mine for raw material. It snakes up to the Texas – Oklahoma border in less dramatic fashion, including along the Trinity River bottomland where the Irving/Dallas quakes are being recorded.
What's also known is that when you apply new pressures, or re-arrange the pressures, to an existing fault, you get movement. That why deep injection of anything – fracking wastes at a well disposal site or CO2 at existing wells, have been linked to triggering earthquakes – especially where there are already faults.
This is what was probably happening in December 2013 through January and February of 2014 in and around Azle, when that part of the Metromess was experiencing it's own earthquake "swarms." There are at least two injection wells in the vicinity that were at the center of many of the quakes and since their pressures and volumes have been decreased, those swarms have decreased as well.
We know that a couple of fracking waste injection wells at DFW airport on the edge of Irving were closed because of suspected links to earthquakes they were causing.
"And an earlier study by scientists at Southern Methodist University (SMU) and UT found links between disposal wells near the DFW airport and induced earthquakes for a series of quakes in 2008 and 2009. The study specifically looked at two injection wells in the area that were built in 2008. Seven weeks later, earthquakes started. “Were the DFW earthquakes natural or triggered by activities associated with natural gas production, most likely saltwater injection to dispose of brines?” the report asked. The study said yes, the “correlations are consistent with an induced or triggered source.”
Those DFW airport wells have been closed for years, but with millions of gallons of waste being stored deep underground, are they still capable of causing pressures on the Balcones and/or faults that feed the Balcones? We know less about the geology underneath us than we do the deep space above us.
In the middle of the earthquake swarm there are two gas wells on the University of Dallas campus – one that was producing until 2012 and one where the casing failed and shut down early on. They've been there since 2009 but we don't know the recent history of either.
No new drilling or injection activity is known to have occurred at or near the sites of the most recent earthquakes.
We've come a long way from the original perceived foil hat territory of fracking activity causing earthquakes. When many of us first heard about this association, it sounded like science fiction. Now we know it's science fact. Even the oil and gas industry concedes that injection wells have a connection to earthquakes. That's a huge change in the debate since only a few years ago.
What is less known, and what the industry does not concede yet, is that fracking alone has been linked to earthquakes.
A 2012 British study found fracking itself caused small earthquakes near Blackpool.
The report, undertaken by independent experts and commissioned by the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change, looked at the relationship between fracking operations by the Cuadrilla company at Preese Hall well, near Blackpool in Lancashire, and small earthquakes between April and May of 2011 – the largest a magnitude 2.3. The report agreed with previous studies that the earthquakes were caused by the process.
It said the stress in the fault was pre-existing and the hydraulic changes made by fracking initiated the earthquake sequence.
The same thing happened in Canada with fracking near the Horn River Basin.
"…a report released recently by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission sheds light on the huge shale gas deposits in northeastern B.C. Quakes recorded by Natural Resources Canada ranged from 2.2 to 3.8 on the Richter scale, below the 4 mark and thus deemed minor.
"The investigation has concluded that the events observed within remote and isolated areas of the Horn River Basin between 2009 and 2011 were caused by fluid injection during hydraulic fracturing in proximity to pre-existing faults," the commission said in its report."
We don't know what's causing the Irving quakes, but we do know that fracking alone has been known to cause the size of earthquakes being recorded there now. To suggest that only injection wells have been linked to quake activity is just plain wrong.
We're messing with Texas geology in a way that we haven't before, in areas of the state where we haven't before. We really don't know what the long-term consequences of that messing are.