In the middle of another bad North Texas ozone season, a new study by a Houston research consortium concludes that Barnett Shale natural gas facilities "significantly" raise smog levels in DFW, affecting air quality far downwind.
According to the study, ozone impacts from gas industry pollution are so large, they'll likely keep North Texas from being able to achieve the EPA's new 75 parts per billion (ppb) ozone standard.
Author Eduardo P. Olaguer, a Senior Research Scientist and Director of Air Quality Research at the Houston Advanced Research Center, concludes that, "Major metropolitan areas in or near shale formations will be hard pressed to demonstrate future attainment of the federal ozone standard, unless significant controls are placed on emissions from increased oil and gas exploration and production….urban drilling and the associated growth in industry emissions may be sufficient to keep the area (DFW) in nonattainment."
Olaguer's article describing his study was recently published in the July 18th edition of the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association. It's the first independent study to examine specific North Texas ozone impacts from the gas industry.
Environmental groups say air pollution from natural gas sources is already making it impossible for DFW to meet even the obsolete 15-year old standard of 85 ppb. So far in 2012, five monitors have violated that level of smog despite a state plan that Austin guaranteed would reduce ozone concentrations in DFW to record lows this year. Counting 2012's failure, DFW has been in continual violation of the Clean Air Act for its smog pollution since 1991.
"This study is proof we need a regional strategy of self-defense to reduce air pollution from the gas industry," said Downwinders at Risk Director Jim Schermbeck, whose group has been leading the fight to reduce smog-forming pollution from gas sources for two years now. "TCEQ and EPA are not doing enough to rein-in these facilities. Despite their official plans, our air is getting dirtier, not cleaner because gas pollution is still under-regulated. It's time for us to do more at the local level."
Schermbeck suggested the study could make a difference in the upcoming city council vote on a new Dallas gas drilling ordinance.
"Dallas has a chance to react positively to this new evidence by adopting the nation's first policy aimed at mitigating the tons of new pollution caused by gas mining in its new drilling ordinance. That would be a very large step forward in advancing regional clean air goals."
A city-wide coalition of neighborhood, homeowners, and environmental groups has been urging the Dallas city council to require gas operators to reduce as much air pollution as they release through funding of anti-pollution measures across the city. The Houston Center study gives them a lot of fresh arguments.
According to it, "…oil and gas activities can have significant near-source impacts on ambient ozone, through either regular emissions or flares and other emission events associated with process upsets,and perhaps also maintenance, startup, and shutdown of oil and gas facilities."
In fact, just routine emissions from a single gas compressor station or large flare can raise ozone levels by 3 parts per billion as far as five miles downwind, and sometimes by 10 ppb or more as far as 10 miles downwind.
Those impacts rival the size of smog effects traced back to the Midlothian cement kilns or East Texas coal-fired power plants by previous studies.
As the study notes, "Given the possible impact of large single facilities, it is all the more conceivable that aggregations of oil and gas sites may act in concert so that they contribute several parts per billion to 8-hr ozone during actual exceedances."
This conclusion directly contradicts the stance of the Natural Gas industry and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, both of which deny that Barnett Shale gas emissions are large enough or located in areas that can influence DFW ozone levels.
But the Houston study is based in part on data collected by industry, as well as information from the city-sponsored "Fort Worth Study," and citizen-sponsored testing in the town of DISH in Denton County. It also uses a kind of computer modeling that allows for a more realistic understanding of how large releases from gas facilities can increase ozone pollution than the one the TCEQ uses. It's the most sophisticated challenge yet to the state and industry's claim that gas emissions do not constitute a large threat to DFW air quality.
"This is reality-based science, not the ideologically-influenced happy talk that's coming out of TCEQ these days," said Schermbeck. "Local governments in North Texas, especially those that are traditional allies of clean air, need to pay close attention and act on it."
The report is available for downloading here.
Let's face it, the EPA legal team has taken a bunch of hits lately. Losses in court over the Texas Flex permitting plan and national cross state pollution rules, among others, have gotten lots of headlines, but for various reasons may not be as awful as they first sound to environmentalists.
But there was a recent ruling that did hit home for metropolitan areas like DFW that are a) already in "non-attainment" of the federal ozone, or smog, standard, and, b) host lots of urban gas and oil drilling. You probably didn't hear about it, but it may have more of an impact on your air here because it once again left a large loophole in current law that allows the oil and gas sector to escape emissions "off-setting."
According to the Clean Air Act, every large industry that comes to set up shop in a non-attainment area like DFW must decrease as much pollution as it estimates it will increase. This is required so that new pollution doesn't just take the place of pollution that's been reduced from industries already operating in the area. Otherwise, there would be a large imbalance between new industries and established ones that would put air quality progress in peril.
And that's exactly what's happening in DFW.
For a decade now, gas mining in the Barnett Shale has added tons and tons of new air pollution to the North Texas airshed that has not had to be off-set with reductions. While emissions from this industrial sector grew, pollution from local cars, power plants and cement kilns actually decreased. Based on past experience DFW should be making headway toward cleaner air. But we're not. For the last two years, DFW air quality progress has stagnated and even begun rolling backwards. This year we already have five monitors out of compliance with a 1997 ozone standard, compared to just one in 2010.
So why aren't gas emissions subject to Clean Air Act "off-sets" just like a power plant or cement kiln? Because nobody writing the Clean Air Act in 1970, or its amendments in 1991, anticipated urban drilling on the scale we're experiencing it in DFW these days. Nobody foresaw the establishment of a huge gas patch in a large metropolitan area with connected, but widely diffused sources of emissions spread out over hundreds of square miles. They were thinking about "stationary sources" of pollution like coal-fired power plants, refineries and the like. The amounts needed to trigger off-setting are all oriented toward these massive facilities, not lots of smaller sources that eventually equal or surpass their output. As a result, there's a huge loophole that keeps the oil and gas industry from being regulated like any other industry in a non-attainment area.
EPA has recognized this loophole and tried to close it by ruling that facilities connected by process in the gas field may be treated as one large source of pollution – the term is "aggregate." And this is the definition that a court recently shot down in a Michigan case:
"The Cincinnati, Ohio-based 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals held yesterday that EPA had no basis to find that the natural gas sweetening plant and sour gas production wells owned by Summit Petroleum Corp. in Rosebush, Mich., are "adjacent" under the statute and therefore a single source just because they shared some similar functions.
It is an important case for the oil and gas industry because it is the first appeals court ruling to address a recent EPA move seeking to more aggressively "aggregate" various nearby sources of air pollution at oil and gas facilities for permitting purposes.
The court ordered EPA on a 2-1 vote to consider again whether the facilities, spread over a 43-square-mile area, are "adjacent" under the "plain-meaning of the term," which focuses only on physical proximity."
Just in case there was any doubt about why the gas industry was challenging the EPA policy of aggregating, the next sentence of the article makes it clear:
"Industry groups object because it can bring the individual sources under the umbrella of more stringent Clean Air Act permitting requirements."
Now, of course adjacent in common law means next door. But what does it, or should it mean, in environmental law? The collective air pollution being generated by that 43 square mile complex could very well be "adjacent" to your lungs a short distance downwind. But the court didn't see it that way.
That means that going into the next clean air plan for DFW – one that will, at least theoretically be aimed at the new 75 parts per billion ozone standard – EPA will not be able to "off-set" the large amounts of air pollution generated by gas mining and processing in the North Texas non-attainment area.
And that's why we have to do it ourselves, one city and one county at a time. Starting in Dallas. Starting now.
As part of the larger re-writing of the Dallas gas drilling ordinance, a very large and impressive coalition of homeowners groups, neighborhood associations, and environmental organizations have all endorsed the idea of Dallas requiring local off-sets for any pollution released by new gas facilities within the city limits. A company would have to pay for projects that would reduce as much pollution as it was estimated to release every year. Dallas would be the first city in the country to adopt such a policy, but it probably wouldn't t be the last. And it wouldn't take that many before you started seeing an impact on industry's emissions.
We have a model in the successful Green Cement Campaign of the last half decade, that also started in the Dallas City Council chambers with a first-in-the-nation vote. All it took was a dozen cities and counties passing green cement procurement ordinances to get the cement industry's attention. As of 2014, something like 300,000 tons of air pollution a year will have been eliminated because there are no more dirty wet kilns in North Texas.
We can do it again. This time with gas patch pollution. We have to. Nobody else is going to do it for us.
At around closing time came news that the EPA had finalized the boundaries of the new “non-attainment area” for smog in North Texas that corresponds to enforcement of the “new” 75 ppb ozone standard approved last year. The 9 counties that were already in violation of the older standard are still there: Collin, Dallas, Denton, Ellis, Johnson, Kaufman, Parker, Rockwall, and Tarrant. The only new addition is Wise County, but it’s a huge one given its prodigious amount of gas industry pollution and commuter traffic to Tarrant and Denton Counties. It also means that Wise County will be getting an ozone monitor. If it’s placed correctly by TCEQ – and that’s a big if – it could be giving us a much truer understanding of how high or low ozone levels are really going. Since predominant winds during “ozone season” (April -November) are from the southeast to northwest, much of DFW’s dirty air gets pushed into Wise County, where it then officially falls off the map because there’s no air monitors there to record it. TCEQ likes it that way because ozone readings in Wise – where DFW dirty air meets gas patch emissions – could be significantly higher than in most of the rest of DFW. And that would dampen the Austin happy talk about improving DFW air quality. Also coming to Wise are things like those Vapor Recovery units on gasoline pumps, and other stricter pollution control requirements – although the impact on the entrenched gas industry infrastructure already there is unclear. Hood County was also singled out by EPA for inclusion in the non-attainment area but is left off this final order. It also has a number of gas industry facilities, including compressor stations, although most have shown up over the last ten years as opposed to Wise, which has seen decades of oil and gas production. There was no explanation for Hood exclusion in EPA’s letter. DFW wil be classified as a “Moderate” non-attainment area under the new standard while Houston will get a more severe “Marginal” classification. Why? Because the EPA uses a formula based on percentage above the new standard and Houston has traditionally had higher readings – think Ship Channel “upsets” and belches, even if DFW had just as many. Dallas and Houston remain Texas’ only non-attainmenta areas for smog, although that could certainly change over time. Next up is EPA’s determination of the compliance timeline for all non-attainment areas. The good news is that DFW’s deadline should be sooner than Houston’s because it’s not as severely ranked. The worse the air, the more time a region has to clean it up. The bad news is that it could still mean officials don’t have to get serious about cleaner air until around 2015 for a 2017-18 deadline. That”s been the pattern up to now – keep waiting until the last minute to think about how to dig yourself out of a multi-decade deep hole. And believe us, with this process, 2 years is “the last minute.” There could be all kinds of useful planning and researching going on right now but they’ll be none of that. Because insuring receipt of federal highway dollars, not protecting public health, has been the primary motivating factor behind the clean air machinery in North Texas. Until those priorities are reversed and clean air is sought for its own worth, we’re likely to always be behind the curve, chasing “unattainable” smog standards.