Dallas Resident Liz Alexander showed up at the Council of Governments meeting room on Tuesday to lend her support to the effort to get more out of an anemic state ant-smog plan than the state wants to give. She was a warm body whose presence would be its own statement of concern. She was being a good trooper by just showing up.
At first she sat far from the action amidst the rows of seats for bystanders and, despite encouragement, was resigned to just listening, because as she explained, "she didn't know enough to ask questions."
Then someone urged her to move up to the rectangle of tables where the presenters stand and deliver, where there are microphones to raise the volume of concerns and questions that might be posed by mind-numbing reassurances that everything is going hunky-dory. As more of these air quality meetings have occurred, citizens have been less and less shy about taking up these front row seats that look more official than the rest; look like they should be reserved for guys in suits. Increasingly they're occupied by people in street clothes.
And then, after much information had been paraded in front of Liz, she did something she did not think she was qualified to do only about 90 minutes earlier. She asked a question. It was about what assumptions had been included in the information about unspent air pollution clean-up dollars that are piling up in Austin. She got an answer from a local COG staff person in real time that satisfied her. In the space of one meeting she moved from spectator to participant.
And she wasn't the only one. More than any other meeting so far, this one involved more citizens asking more questions about more subjects – and it revealed just how thin the state's rationale is for doing nothing.
As predicted, it was a day for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to explain why its new DFW anti-smog plan was really going to work this time – unlike the five previous failures – and why it wasn't going to be considering any new controls on the Midlothian cement plants or on gas compressors – a refutation of the case Downwinders at Risk had made in its June 16th presentation.
But here's what really happened: For the first time in these proceedings the state admitted that oil and gas emissions have a big influence on regional air quality. And when a former County Judge asked an TCEQ's Air Quality Manager specifically why anti-smog controls already being used on cement kilns in Europe were not being considered for the Midlothian kilns, the staffer couldn't say, offering up only the longest, most pregnant pause by any state staffer in the history of these meetings.
After being heavily criticized for months for leaving at least four monitors above the 75 ppb federal smog standard even after its plan had ended in 2018, the state came back to this meeting saying they only had three sites above 75 ppb now, and by margins that didn't exceed the standard by more than 1 part per billion. Between June and August, there had been a remarkable drop in future estimated smog levels at the area's monitoring sties in the state's computer modeling – particularly at the historically most stubborn monitoring sites in Denton and Northwest Tarrant County.
What had caused this drop? A relatively modest decrease in Nitrogen Oxide pollution of around seven tons a day and a decrease in Volatile Organic Compounds of about 15 tons per day. That's not a lot of pollution to produce such a large decrease in monitor readings in the computer model.
A more important question is: where did the decreases in air pollution come from that could produce such dramatic results in the modeling? The answer: primarily from oil and gas industry sources. Based on TCEQ's own formula relying on the declining number of new wells being drilled in the Barnett Shale.
For the moment forget the methodological qualms you might have about that declining well assumption. Instead, appreciate the fact that the same state agency that couldn't bring itself to ever say the Barnett Shale was producing air pollution holding DFW back from meeting Clean Air Act smog standards now says that it's decreases in that very kind of pollution that are having such a substantial effect on the monitors in the western part of the Metromess that have been the most resistant to other control strategies. TCEQ has just proven a causal link its been denying for over seven years now.
It can't be just a one-way street. If declining oil and gas air pollution equals better air quality in the TCEQ's computer model, so increases in oil and gas pollution must lead to worse air quality.
There are all kinds of reasons to doubt that the drop in total oil and gas air pollution will happen at all or drop as fast or as sharply as the TCEQ predicts. Afterall, they're 0 for 5 in such matters. They may be underestimating the amount of total air pollution from all gas and oil sources and so the drop will not be as sharp. They may be underestimating the impact of lots of new lift compressors that will be showing up to squeeze the last bits of gas from older wells even as new wells are not drilled as often. But as of Tuesday the link has been made by TCEQ itself that such a drop results in big decreases in smog levels in Denton and Northwest Tarrant County. That's something that citizens can use to argue as proof of the impact of oil and gas facilities on local air quality.
Of course, it only took the span of about 30 minutes for the TCEQ to internally contradict itself about those results.
According to TCEQ computer modelers, natural gas Compressor Stations large enough to be considered "point sources" just like cement kilns or power plants will be responsible for over 17 tons of Nitrogen Oxides, and 26 tons of VOCs a day in 2018 – well over the amount of oil and gas pollution decreases that resulted in those lower monitoring numbers in Denton and NW Tarrant County. But according to the TCEQ staff responsible for suggesting new controls in the new smog plan, those numbers are not large enough to have an impact on improving DFW air quality or warranting a policy of electrification for those compressors that could reduce their air pollution to a fraction of those volumes.
So while 7 tons of NOx reduction from Oil and Gas sources is large enough to bring some of the most stubborn monitors down a whole part per billion, reducing air pollution from Oil and Gas sources by another 17 tons of NOx reduction would have no effect on DFW air quality at all and it's just not worth it to make them electrify compressors. Honest, that was the logic in play on Monday, and it didn't hold up very well under questions from people like Liz Alexander.
And that was all before you got to why the Midlothian cement kilns could not, no way, no how, possibly, under any circumstance, be required to install Selective Catalytic Reduction controls, just like their European counterparts have done over the last 15 years.
Turns out, it's just because.
Oh, the TCEQ staffer cited four criteria for any new control measure to meet before it could be considered. Let's see, there was "technological feasibility." Since there are at least seven full-scale SCR units up and running in Europe, that couldn't be a problem. It's accepted technology by some of the same companies operating kilns in the US – including LaFarge-Holcim.
There was "economic feasibility." And since there are all those SCR examples already in the European market and no company has gone bankrupt running them, that's also off the table. Plus the fact that the TCEQ's own 2005 study of SCR concluded it was "available technology" then that would only cost $1000 to $3,000 per ton of NOx removed – versus the up to $15,000 per ton of NOx removed ratio allowed in the state's own official diesel engine replacement program. Coming in at one-fifth the cost of what the state already said was economically feasible, it certainly ruled out that one.
There was the third criterion – that controls couldn't cause ‘‘substantial widespread and long-term adverse impacts.’’ The state said that wasn't the reason they couldn't be considered either, although the TCEQ staffers seemed to hedge a bit here, seemingly wanting to say that, really, they didn't want to cause themselves adverse impact by admitting that they had been wrong for over a decade about this stuff.
The proposed control cannot be ‘‘absurd, unenforceable, or impracticable.’’ Clearly, if the Europeans are doing it on their kilns, it's none of those either. It's quantifiable, and up and running in power plants, cement kilns and incinerators.
And it has to speed the attainment deadline by a year. No problem. SCR could do that if it was installed in a timely fashion.
So at the end of the state's presentation, former Dallas County Judge Margaret Keliher asked the TCEQ staffer exactly why SCR wasn't considered a possible pollution control measure since none of these criteria that had been presented seem to rule it out. And the TCEQ's staffer's response was…………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….
No, really, that was the response. She couldn't say. It was that embarrassing. Because the rejection of SCR by TCEQ isn't based on any of those criteria. It's based on a political decision that's been made that no new pollution controls will be sought on the kilns or any other major industrial polluter as long as Rick Perry is running for President. Or "just because."
How ridiculous is this? At this point the TCEQ is taking an even more regressive view of SCR controls than the cement industry itself. In June, Holcim Cement's Midlothian plant requested a permit from the state that would allow it to build either a Thermal Oxidizer or an SCR until for the control of VOC pollution. Being the free market fanatics the Perry Administration claims to be, doesn't the fact that one of the Midlothian cement plants is asking for a permit that includes the possibility of installing SCR mean it's automatically technologically and economically feasible? The market is never wrong, right? Are the folks at Holcim so enamored of kinky, off-the-wall green technology that they'll just include it in a permit for laughs? These guys are Swiss engineers. They have no sense of humor.
Denial of SCR as a viable control measure that could reduce smog pollution is making the TCEQ contort into sillier and sillier positions. It's making them deny the conclusions of their own almost-decade old report that said it was available to put in a kiln in 2005. It's making them deny the fact that SCR is up and running at over half a dozen kilns in Europe. It's forcing them to once again use the "Midlothian limestone is magically special" defense that has been used to forestall any progress in pollution control there over the last 25 years. The arguments used against SCR are exactly the same as were used against the adoption of less effective SNCR technology before it was mandated. In case you hadn't noticed, they're still making cement in Midlothian despite the burden of having to nominally control their air pollution.
The state wants to power through this anti-smog plan just like they did the last one in 2011. They don't want to have to make industry do anything. But at this point the denial of SCR as a control measure to be included in the next DFW anti-smog plan is so absurd, as is the justification for electrification of gas compressors, that it might be fodder in the next citizens lawsuit over a DFW anti-smog plan, which usually follows these things like mushrooms after a rainstorm.
Want to get involved in this fight and make it more difficult for the state to get away with doing nothing at all about DFW smog – again? Please consider attending our next DFW Clean Air Network meeting – THIS SUNDAY, AUGUST 17th, from 3:30 pm to 5:30 pm at the offices of the Texas Campaign for the Environment across from Lee Park in Dallas, 3303 Lee Pkwy, Suite #402 (214) 599-7840. Citizens are the only force that can make this plan better. Be there, or breathe bad air.
It's been a pretty nice summer in DFW so far hasn't it? Wetter and cooler than usual. More wind. According to the stats, this past month was the first June without any 100 degree days in seven years or so. Consequently, it's also the first June in forever that hasn't seen any "Orange" or "Red" ozone alert days. If this keeps up, DFW may actually come into compliance with the 1997 ozone standard of 85 parts per billion (ppb) over an 8-hour time period – a first as well.
But unless you think "global weirding" is going to produce these kinds of summers routinely from here on out, there's little cause for comfort. This year's cleaner air is a direct result of cooler weather. Substitute the hellish summer of 2011 for this mild one and you'd be seeing ozone alerts filling up your e-mail box. As a result, it's not out of the question we could meet the standard this year, but flunk it in 2015 if the weather reverts back to "normal."
In addition, while we may come in under the 1987 smog standard for the first time, the public health goal posts have moved with better science. In 2008, the Bush Administration lowered the acceptable level of smog to 75 ppb. That's the goal of the clean air plan that Downwinders and other groups are fighting the state over right now, saying it's not adequate to even get to that 75 ppb level.
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality staff say we don't need to implement any major pollution control measures on cement kilns, power plants, or natural gas facilities to reach this 75 ppb goal by the deadline in 2018. All we have to do is sit back and let a new federal gasoline standard hit the market in 2017 and we'll all be fine – well, except for those millions of residents who'll be breathing-in smog greater than 75 ppb on the north and western side of the Metromess. But the TCEQ staff say we'll be "close enough." No harm, no foul say the folks from the agency where smog is not considered bad for you.
But close enough should only count in horseshoes and hand grenades, not what people breathe into their lungs. And while some of us are trying to make sure the new TCEQ plan is serious about reaching an air quality goal that's now six years old, the level of ozone considered "safe" by experts is once again going down.
In a letter to EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy last week, the Agency's own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee (CASAC) recommended a new smog standard of between 60 and 70 ppb, saying that there's a boatload of evidence showing that the 75 ppb level is not protective of human health, and even at 70 ppb there's significant public health harm done by bad air.
"At 70 ppb, there is substantial scientific evidence of adverse effects….including decrease in lung function, increase in respiratory symptoms, and increase in airway inflammation. Although a level of 70 ppb is more protective of public health than the current standard, it may not meet the statutory requirement to protect public health with an adequate margin of safety….our policy advice is to set the level of the standard lower than 70 ppb within a range down to 60 ppb…"
This recommendation was not unexpected. Every five years, the CASAC is legally obligated to review the scientific literature to make sure the federal ozone standard is giving adequate protection to public health. The last time it did so in 2008, the panel came to a similar conclusion to lower it somewhere between 65 and 70 ppb, but the Bush Administration ignored its own scientists and chose the higher standard instead. An Obama EPA was supposed to correct that mistake when it came into office, but then-EPA head Lisa Jackson got mugged on her way to the White House by the President's re-election campaign. Any changes were put on hold until that five year review clock began ticking again. And now the official alarm has gone off on that clock. The result is a re-affirmation of the earlier findings, this time with even more science to back up the changes.
As a result, EPA will have to decide whether or not to adopt the tougher recommendations of its scientists by December 1st of this year. If they do, a new standard will be officially adopted by 2015 and we'll have to write a new clean air plan in a couple of years to achieve that goal by the end of the decade. If it doesn't, they'll be sued, with the CASAC letter as exhibit #1, and they'll lose and have to set a new standard anyway.
Why is that important to the current debate over TCEQ's plan to meet the 75 standard? Because the TCEQ plan leaves at least four monitors, spread out from Denton, to Keller, to Eagle Mountain Lake above 75 ppb – a standard that EPA scientists now say conclusively is not protecting public health.
"Close enough" to that 75 ppb level turns out to be too far away from real protection in light of the new recommendations for a standard below 70 ppb from the Science Advisory Committee. And that assumes you believe the computer modeling TCEQ has done to support its plan. To date, the state is 0 for 5 going back to 1991 in being able to accurately predict these things. If history is any indication, the state's plan will fail to reach its goal of 75 ppb at just about every one of the 20 monitors in DFW, not just four.
If you know your target of 75 ppb of smog over an 8-hour period is no longer a safe standard, and your current plan condones levels above that, it's not really a clean air plan.
December is not only when EPA must decide if it's going to pursue a lower smog standard. It's also when the state is scheduled to take public comment on its current DFW anti-smog plan. So you have the surreal possibility of holding public hearings over the merits of an already obsolete plan that isn't even serious about reaching its obsolete goal.
This is why DFW residents must demand a plan from Austin that aims lower, not higher. It's why they must demand the EPA not allow TCEQ to get away with being "close enough" to a standard that's not protecting their health. A real clean air plan would be shooting for an average of 65-70 ppb knowing that that standard will be coming down the road sooner or later. A real clean air plan wouldn't allow any monitor to exceed the current 75 standard. A real clean air plan would try to do its best to protect public health by implementing pollution control measures on the sources of smog that are the cheapest and most effective to target – Midlothian's cement plants, east and central Texas coal plants, and the natural gas industry.
And that's exactly what Downwinders and other members of the new DFW Clean Air Network are trying to do. We're pushing for stricter EPA enforcement of the 75 ppb standard, and we're pushing for adoption of "Reasonably Available Control Measures" on the cement plants and gas compressors – now, not later. Because the only way DFW breathers are going to get a better clean air plan out of Austin and Washington is by organizing for one themselves.
Just last week at the June regional air quality planning meeting the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality was bemoaning the fact that the weather too often determines how bad an "ozone season" DFW will have. And it's true. When we have really hot, dry, and windless summers, ozone levels soar as they did as recently as 2011-2012 when the recent drought seemed to reach its most awful heights in DFW. Conversely, when we have relatively cool, wet and windy summers, ozone levels abate, as they seem to be doing this year – at least so far.
Of course, the TCEQ spokesperson was using weather as an excuse why DFW hadn't yet achieved compliance with the 1997 ozone standard after two tries that fell short. Completely overlooked was the fact that the last state air plan for DFW in 2011 promised historically low ozone levels by 2013 without any new pollution controls on major sources of pollution. Combine that lack of action with a really hot, dry summer like we saw in 2011, and you get the first clean air plan ever to leave ozone levels higher after it ended than when it started.
That's why it's important to think about the weather when you're trying to build new clean air plans for DFW that stretch years into the future. Air quality planners have to ask themselves if between now and the next federal clean air plan deadline of 2018, will there be more summers like this seemingly anomalous one, or will they more like the summer of 2011 when we had a constant barrage of 100 degree plus days as early as March?
Currently, the TCEQ is using a stretch of bad air days from 2006 to predict ozone levels between now and 2018 in their computer model for the DFW air plan to comply with the new, tougher 2008 ozone standard. But 2006 was pre-drought. Although they say they're "adjusting" the meteorology to compensate for weather changes since then, do you really trust TCEQ to assume worst-case weather scenarios when they're still trying to hide the smog impacts of gas pollution from the public? Us either.
So it's with more than a little self-interest that we note a new Stanford study with the too-sexy title of "Occurrence and Persistence of Future Atmospheric Stagnation Events" concluding that the Western US, including Texas, should expect hotter and therefore smoggier summers thanks to climate change. Why? Because hotter temperatures will slow the flow of air around the globe. That means less wind, and less wind means more time for smog-forming chemicals to sit and bake in the hot sun and form harmful levels of ozone. Historically, most of our worst ozone days are when winds are blowing less than 5 mph – stagnate air.
DFW isn't like Denver or LA where mountains form bowls around the urban areas and trap pollution in inversions. But the new study concludes the impact from global warming could have the same effect on the Texas prairie by stagnating air currents:
"Our analysis projects increases in stagnation occurrence that cover 55% of the current global population, with areas of increase affecting ten times more people than areas of decrease. By the late twenty-first century, robust increases of up to 40 days per year are projected throughout the majority of the tropics and subtropics, as well as within isolated mid-latitude regions. Potential impacts over India, Mexico and the western US are particularly acute owing to the intersection of large populations and increases in the persistence of stagnation events, including those of extreme duration. These results indicate that anthropogenic climate change is likely to alter the level of pollutant management required to meet future air quality targets."
And who's more prepared to deal with the "pollution management required to meet future (re: tougher) air quality targets than the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality? Almost any one, including your 13-year old niece who's done so well in 8th grade science this year. Because not only is it the TCEQ's official position that smog isn't all that bad for you, but that there's really no such thing as climate change. It's why you should bring a boatload of skepticism to the computer model that's driving the currently proposed DFW clean air plan. To plug hotter and hotter temps into the DFW smog model for coming years would be admitting to a phenomena that the Rick Perry administration in Austin just can't bring itself to concede. One more example of how the DFW plan is being driven by politics, not science.
As the TCEQ's own staff admitted last week, DFW's ozone levels are often hostage to the weather. If you're model isn't correctly estimating the weather during future ozone seasons, chances are your estimates of future ozone levels will be off as well. But of course, since smog isn't really bad for you there's no downside to being wrong about these things at TCEQ HQ, and only an upside in GOP primaries.
For the rest of us who believe what the science tells us, the consequences are more dire. As the VICE magazine take on the Stanford study said:
"….one reason this study is so important to the climate change conversation—it underlines the public health threat posed by climbing temps. When Obama was touting the EPA's new carbon regulations, he emphasized the public health benefits of drawing down emissions: It would reduce asthma and respiratory illness, he pointed out. But that's largely because shuttering dirty power plants cuts both carbon and particulate pollutants simultaneously; fighting climate change also means fighting asthma.
Now, scientists have demonstrated there's an additional layer of concern to grapple with on the pollution front; climate change is going to begin blocking cities' toxic release valves. If we don't work to slow carbon emissions, these steamier cities will find their streets clogged with stagnant smog. Scrubbing that pollution and finding novel ways to clear the air, too, then, will prove to be a pressing concern in the not-so-distant future.
Last week, local officials were balking at reserving a slot at next Thursday's regional air planning meeting for a presentation by UNT researchers on how gas industry emissions from the Barnett Shale could be adding to DFW's chronic smog.
After reading about the UNT research in the Denton Record Chronicle, Downwinders at Risk and State Representative Lon Burnam specifically asked the local Council of Governments to include the UNT work on the agenda.
At first, we were told that there was already one technical presentation scheduled for the meeting and there wouldn't be any time for a second.
That struck us as strange, since in the past, every such meeting has always had more than one technical presentation.
When we pointed this out in an e-mail with links to past meeting agendas to prove the point, we quickly got a different response. Suddenly, there would be time for the UNT presentation.
That wasn't so hard was it? All it took was a little logical push back. But if we hadn't supplied it, Thursday would be looking a lot different.
Now, we're asking you to please come and help us push back a little more.
State environmental officials are on record as saying the air pollution from gas mining and production in the Barnett Shale is not adding to DFW's smog.
A lot of us think otherwise.
Come next Thursday, on the 17th, you can listen to the new UNT research on fracking air pollution and ask Texas Commission on Environmental Quality officials directly what makes them so sure that gas pollution isn't hurting local air quality.
Because the format of these regional clean air meetings are now so informal, anyone in the audience can ask questions of a presenter. That means you – if you show up.
It doesn't matter if you don't know the technical lingo. This is all about wind direction, weather, and things that pollute. There are no stupid questions.
The new anti-smog plan that the state is building needs all the public scrutiny it can get. It needs tough examination by people who care about clean air and the truth.
Next Thursday, you can help us put the state on the spot.
This is the first opportunity in 2014 to speak up and sound off about our decades-long smog problem. Don't let the TCEQ leave town without hearing from you.
We fought and won the right for you to listen to this research because we thought it was important. Won't you please come and take advantage of this victory?
We need a good showing to prove DFW residents are still mad about breathing dirty air.
NEXT THURSDAY, APRIL 17th
10 am to 12pm
North Central Texas Council of Government headquarters
616 Six Flags Drive
(After the meeting, State Representative Lon Burnam and Downwinders will be hosting a lunch time de-briefing, location to be decided, so stay tuned.)
Look, we know this is a small victory. But state officials don't want to talk about how gas industry pollution may be making our local smog worse, even though there's evidence that it is.
That's exactly why we think we need to keep bringing it up.
Winning the right to hear a new scientific presentation on the connection between gas pollution and smog may not seem like much of a win, but it is when the Powers-That-Be don't want you to hear it.
We know that small victories like this can lead to larger successes.
In the 1990's the same state agency that's now denying gas pollution has any impact on DFW smog was saying exactly the same thing about the Midlothian cement plants.
It took lots of push back from citizens who knew better before we got the state to admit it was wrong.
Now, Ellis County is in the DFW non-attainment area and the cement plants have controls on them they would otherwise never have.
We need the same effort in 2014 to show the state is as wrong about gas industry pollution as it was about the cement plants.
Right now, Downwinders is the only group committed to organizing citizens around clean air issues in DFW.
But we just lost a funding source that was critical to us and we need your help to keep the pressure on. This money paid for staff work in the field.It's very easy to give securely online here, or you can send checks to our P.O. Box at the bottom of the page.
We really need your help. Thank you.
Other than an occasional trip to Austin or DC to stop or support some piece of legislation, the action takes place in whatever community is putting up the most resistance. Front lines are fragmented and move around a lot. There's not a single cause that's united the energy from the multitude of ad hoc groups and individual "fracktivists" into a focused campaign for regional change. The closest thing to more encompassing battles have been the recent victories in Dallas and the current kickass campaign in Denton. These feel like old Cold War skirmishes – proxy clashes standing in for the on-going larger war over the Barnett Shale's soul.
But from now until the summer of 2015 there's a regional fracking fight waiting to be fought. It involves new bureaucracies and terms and mechanics, so it makes a lot of traditional fracking foes nervous. But the payoff is the potential to affect change throughout a 10-county area, including the heart of the urban Barnett Shale – Tarrant, Parker, Denton, Johnson, Wise and Ellis – as well as Dallas, Collin, Kaufman, and Rockwall.
What's the fight? It's over the new regional anti-smog plan, called a State Implementation Plan, or SIP. When a region hasn't met the federal standard for smog, also called ozone, it has to submit a plan to the EPA to explain how it's going to comply by the end of a three-year deadline. Despite at least three previous plans, DFW has never met the 1997 federal standard for smog. It's 85 ppb, or "parts per billion" concentration over 8 hours measured by approximately 20 stationary monitors scattered over the area. The closest we've come has been 86 ppb of ozone in 2009.
The new DFW plan is supposed to be designed to meet an even more ambitious target – no monitor higher than a three-year running average of 75 ppb of ambient air by 2018. We're at 87 ppb now. To reach the new goal, DFW would have to drop 12 parts per billion in ambient smog levels in four years -something that's never happened before.
Ozone/smog is created by a combination of Nitrogen Oxides (NOx) from combustion sources and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) from combustion sources and evaporation sources mixing in daylight. The more sun, the more ozone.
What are combustion sources of NOx and VOCs? Power plants and cement kilns. Every boiler and furnace and oven. Every internal combustion engine. Every diesel engine. Anything with a flame or a spark.
What are evaporation sources of VOCs? Gasoline pumps,tanks and paint shops.
An anti-smog plan is supposed to look at all the sources of smog-forming pollution in a region and find the cheapest and easiest ways to reduce it. Past plans have been responsible for putting more controls on coal-fired power plants and the Midlothian cement plants, as well as creating HOV lanes and tightening inspection standards for vehicles. But one large category of smog-forming emissions has been left largely untouched by past air plans – the gas and oil industry.
It's not because gas and oil sources aren't capable of contributing to DFW smog. Start with all the trucks that are needed for each well and the NOx and VOC emissions they produce. Then the drilling rig itself. Some cities now require electric motors, others still allow diesel and the NOx and VOCs they produce. Think about all the chemicals being dumped into a well and then flowing back out, many of them VOCs. Flares are sources of both NOx and VOCs. Storage tanks and pipelines are huge sources of escaped evaporated VOCs. Diesel compressors are huge sources of NOx. There isn't a part of the oil and gas fuel cycle that doesn't produce smog-forming pollution.
It's not because the oil and gas emissions are insignificant. In 2011, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality estimated that the VOCs being released by all the oil and gas facilities in the DFW area were greater than the volume of VOCs being released by all the cars and trucks on the road in the same region. In 2012, a Houston Area Research Council report estimated that a single flare or compressor could raise downwind ozone levels 3 to 5 parts per billion as far as five to ten miles away.
No, the oil and gas industry haven't been touched by these state anti-smog plans because the state doesn't want to impose new regional regulations on an industry. It's nothing personal. Austin doesn't want to impose new regulations on any industry. The last serious SIP was in 2007 – before the Barnett Shale boom and Rick Perry's presidential campaign. Since then, it's been one excuse after another from TCEQ about why no new controls are necessary – even though DFW air quality progress has stopped and we're still in violation of a 20-year old smog standard.
It's also true that the oil and gas industry hasn't been touched by an air plan because no one's made them. No DFW anti-smog plan has been the focus of a fracking campaign like the recent Dallas Trinity East permits, or the Denton petition drive. There been no pressure on state government to respond to a regional demand for action.
But the new DFW air plan does offer gas activists a chance to get reforms outside of their own city limits. For example, it could be the goal to include mandatory electrification of compressors in this plan. It's been estimated that 60 % or more of the air pollution from the gas fuel cycle comes from compressors. Electrification doesn't solve all their air pollution problems but it takes a huge bite out of them because the compressors are no longer being run by locomotive size diesel engines. Electrification of new compressors and a phase-in to replace existing diesel engines could reduce not just smog pollution, but toxic air pollution and greenhouse gases by thousands of tons a year.
Even if Austin rejects such proposals, there's a part of every plan called the "Weight of Evidence" category that's more inclusive to voluntary measures. A recommendation for cities and counties to demand electrification of all compressors in the DFW region isn't as immediate as a state-sponsored mandate, but it's an official good housekeeping seal you can take to local city councils and pass one by one until it does become a de facto regional policy. This is exactly what happened with Downwinders' Green Cement procurement campaign from 2007-2011 aimed at getting rid of old wet cement kilns in Midlothian. A short recommendation to local governments about where to buy their cement in the 2007 SIP was turned into a model ordinance by Dallas and then passed by a dozen other entities, one by one, over the next two years. by the end of this year, there will be no wet kilns lift in Midlothian.
The same thing could happen with compressors in this new plan, or green completions, or tanks, or pipelines in this new DFW air plan – if activists are willing to invest the same amount of time and energy into a regional fight as they do in their own backyard battles.
You have a couple of chances in April to dip your toes into the SIP Process. This coming Sunday, April 6th, from 3 to 5 pm at the Texas Campaign for the Environment office in Dallas, State Rep Lon Burnam and Downwinders at Risk will be hosting a strategy meeting for folks who want to know more about how to take advantage of this new air plan. Central to this strategy is involving more gas activists to win a regional fight, so y'all come.
Then on April 17th, at 10 am at the North Central Council of Governments Headquarters in Arlington, there's a meeting of the SIP "technical committee" that will be hearing presentations from the state and others about DFW's smog problem. Don't let the "technical committee" name fool you. These are open to the public and anyone can attend. In fact, this is your chance to ask questions of the state and the experts.
And to make it more interesting, we think we've managed to convince the Powers That Be to include UNT graduate student Mahdi Ahmadi's presentation on Barnett Shale contributions to DFW ozone as part of the April 17th meeting. This was the study recently featured by Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe in the Denton Record Chronicle:
According to the results, the air monitoring sites surrounded by oil and gas production activities, generally on the west side of DFW, show worse long-term trends in ozone reduction than those located farther from wells on the east side of DFW.
His spatial analysis of the data showed that ozone distribution has been disproportionally changed and appears linked to production activities, perhaps an explanation why residents on the western side of DFW are seeing more locally produced ozone, particularly since 2008.
If this one fails, another new air plan will not be due until at least 2019 or 2020 at the earliest. This is our only chance until then to affect the gas industry over a wide area instead of just one permit or one city at a time. Let's try to make it count.
DFW Anti-Smog Plan Strategy Meeting
Sunday April 6th 2-5 pm
Texas Campaign for the Environment Offices –
3303 Lee Parkway #402 • Dallas, TX 75219 – across from Lee Park
Hosted by St. Rep. Lon Burnam and Downwinders at Risk
DFW Air Plan Committee Meeting – open to the public
10 am to 12 noon
Thursday April 17th
North Central Texas Council of Governments
616 Six Flags Drive, Arlington – across the street from the amusement park
DFW has a smog problem. It's not as bad as it used to be, but it's still at unsafe and illegal levels. And for the last four or five years, the air quality progress that should have been made has been stymied. Despite almost all large sources of smog-producing pollution being reduced in volume, our running average for ozone is actually a part per billion higher than it was in 2009.
Many local activists believe this lack of progress is due to the huge volumes of smog-producing air pollution being generated by the thousands of individual natural gas sites throughout the DFW region itself, as well as upwind gas and oil plays. In 2012, a Houston-based think tank released a report showing how a single gas flare or compressor could significantly impact downwind smog levels for up to 5 mile or more. Industry and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality say no, gas sources are not significant contributors to DFW smog. In fact, during this current round of planning, the state has gone out of its way to downplay the impact of gas pollution, including rolling back previous emission inventories and inventing new ways to estimates emissions from large facilities like compressor stations.
Into this debate steps a UNT graduate student offering a simple and eloquent scientific analysis that uses the state's own data on smog to indict the gas industry for its chronic persistence in DFW – especially in the western part of he Metromess, where Barnett Shale production is concentrated.
On Monday night Denton Record-Chronicle reporter Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe gave a summary of a presentation on local air quality she'd sat through that day at UNT:
"Graduate student Mahdi Ahmadi, working with his advisor, Dr. Kuruvilla John, downloaded the ozone air monitoring data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality back to 1997, a total of more than 6.5 million data points, he said, and has been studying it for the past four months.
Ahmadi wanted to explore a basic question underlying a graphic frequently distributed by the TCEQ that shows gas wells going up in DFW as ozone goes down, which suggests in a not-very-scientific-at-all way, that the increasing number of gas wells is having no effect on the ozone.
Ahmadi adjusted for meteorological conditions to determine how much ozone DFW people are making and where. Such adjustments have been explored by others to understand better the parts of ozone-making we can control, because we can’t control the weather. He used an advanced statistical method on the data, called the Kolmogorov-Zurbenko filter, to separate the effects of atmospheric parameters from human activities.
According to the results, the air monitoring sites surrounded by oil and gas production activities, generally on the west side of DFW, show worse long-term trends in ozone reduction than those located farther from wells on the east side of DFW.
His spatial analysis of the data showed that ozone distribution has been disproportionally changed and appears linked to production activities, perhaps an explanation why residents on the western side of DFW are seeing more locally produced ozone, particularly since 2008.
Ahmadi's results are not definitive, and the paper he's writing is still a work-in-progress. But he's asking the right questions, and challenging the right unproven assumptions. He's at least put forth an hypothesis and is trying to prove or disprove it. He's using science. TCEQ's approach is all faith-based.
Anything that takes the focus off vehicle pollution is anathema to Austin and many local officials who want to pretend that industrial sources of air pollution don't impact the DFW region enough to make a difference so they don't have to regulate them. If there's a guiding principle to TCEQ's approach to this new clean air plan, due in July 2015, it's to avoid any excuse for new regulations while Rick Perry is running for President. The agency isn't interested in doing any kind of science that might challenge that perspective – no matter how persuasive. After all, you're talking about a group that doesn't believe smog is bad for you. TCEQ doesn't want to know the truth. It can't handle the truth. It's got an ideology and it's stickin' to it.
So it's up to young lowly graduate students from state universities armed only with a healthy sense of scientific curiosity to step up and start suggesting that the Emperor's computer model has no clothes, and offering up alternative scenarios to explain why DFW air quality is stuck in neutral. It turns out, just doing straight-up classroom science is enough to threaten the fragile House of Computer Cards with which the state's air plan is being built.
Perhaps equally as ominous for the success fo any new clean air plan is Ahmadi's discovery that ozone levels in DFW have been during the winter time, or "off-ozone-season." There could be a new normal, higher background level of smog affecting public health almost year round.
Mahdi Ahmadi's study is just one of the many that need to be done to construct an honest clean air plan for DFW, but it shows you what a curious mind and some computing power can do. Citizens can't trust the state to do the basic science necessary as long as the current cast of characters is running the show in Austin. EPA won't step in and stop the farce as long as TCEQ can make things work out on paper. If the scientific method is going to get used to build a better DFW clean air plan, it's going to have to be citizens who apply it.
We're a bit behind the curve in reporting on this, but scientists at the University of North Carolina just published a study in "Environmetnal Research Letters" that estimates Particulate Matter and Ozone pollution in the air is responsible for approximately 2.2 million deaths worldwide every year.
Long-timers already know about how insidious Particulate Matter can be, but this only chronicles the hardcore fatal respiratory and cardiovascular impacts, concluding the tiny particles of soot cause at least 2.1 million deaths every year while ozone pollution shortens another 500,000 lives.
"East Asia," aka China, accounts for fully have of both those figures. India for another third. In North America, the casualties include 43,000 premature deaths from PM pollution and 33,000 from ozone.
Jason West, co-author of the study said: "Outdoor air pollution is an important problem and among the most important environmental risk factors for health."
Although alarming, these numbers are all underestimates of the health impacts of both of these pollutants, since they exclude anything other than fatalities. Besides making it harder to breathe, PM pollution has been linked to brain disorders and immune system disruptions.
98 to 99 percent of the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and 57 to 61 percent of the Nitrogen Oxide (NOx) found in Utah's Uninta's Basin are emitted by gas drilling or production sources, and are responsible for worsening smog there, according to a new Utah Department of Environmental Quality study of air quality there.
The Basin is one of several large rural Western areas of the country that also includes stretches of Colorado and Wyoming where gas drilling has caused the phenomena of "wintertime ozone," creating smog as bad or worse than Los Anageles or Houston.
Despite low snowfall this year, the Basin has still seen more than a dozen episodes of high ozone so far. The ozone readings can reach nearly twice the limit considered safe by the EPA and last for weeks at a time. In 2011, levels reached 139 parts per billion, nearly double the federal health standard. About 1,100 wells were drilled that year.
Leaks from pipes and tanks and fumes from pumps, dryers and compressors were major sources of volatile organics. Drill rigs and fracking were sources of nitrogen oxides and methane, according to the study.
While making no recommendations,the report did say that reductions in certain kinds of volatile organic compounds, including benzene and toluene, “could be particularly effective since they are not only a direct health concern but are more active in ozone production than many other” VOCs.
After waiting for a couple of days for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to say something about the failure of its latest DFW clean air plan to reach a 1997 ozone standard by the end of this "ozone season," Downwinders put out a release on Monday criticizing the agency for leaving the air dirtier than when the plan was begun in 2010.
To succeed, the TCEQ plan had to bring smog numbers down at all DFW monitors to 84 parts per billion or below by the end of this last summer, using three-year rolling averages incorporating readings from 2011 and 2010. The agency blithely predicted it would do just that and even published computer-modeled estimates of what the averages would be at the end of 2012. According to TCEQ we were supposed to see record low ozone levels this summer. So low that there would be no violations of the 1997 ozone standard for the first time since it was implemented.
Although the official EPA regulatory deadline to judge the plan a success or failure is June 15th, 2013, it's fate has already been decided by the data collected the three previous summers. That's important to know. TCEQ doesn't get another summer to prove that it's brilliant plan to sit back and watch people buy cars will work somehow, someway. The Clean Air Act only allows them three years to get their act together per plan. The clock started ticking in 2010. It stopped ticking on November 1, 2012, at the traditional end of DFW's ozone season. That was the practical deadline. All that's left to do is type up the report to EPA and submit it come June 15th of next year. They've run of of time.
But unless you've gone through this process before, or had been following the plan closely, you wouldn't necessarily know this. That was the case with Andrew McLemore, a reporter for the Fort Worth Weekly, who'd been assigned to follow up on the Downwinders release and e-mail the TCEQ for a response.
What TCEQ spokesperson Lisa Wheeler said to McLemore was that of course the agency never claimed to be able to meet the goal by 2012. We said we'd do it by June of 2013 – the regulatory deadline. Ohhhhh.
This is a great answer for a term paper that's late, but not so much when there's no more summers between now and June of next year to use in your clean air plan. Ozone data for November to June isn't going to do you any good because (unless global warming really accelerates) that's not the time of year we see high ozone numbers. And the plan has to use the highest of the high numbers. Telling McLemore that everyone had to wait until June to know the final results of the DFW air plan was like telling him to wait for the cake to cool for eight months after its' already been taken out of the oven. The thing is done. It's not getting any bigger, or sweeter-tasting, or rounder. It's not changing character or content. It is what it is right now.
TCEQ knows this. Lisa Wheeler knows that there will be no new numbers to add or subtract from that will make any difference. There will be no 2013 average that they can use to change the results from what they are at this moment. It's all already been determined by this summer's miserable showing, and the miserable showing before that in 2011. That's what makes this answer of theirs so incredibly cynical.
Wheeler apparently wanted to confuse McLemore, in essence saying, "Gee we really didn't fail yet – you have to wait until next June to conclude that. We still have time to change the outcome! " But because the data won't change, the results won't change either.
Don't take our word for it. TCEQ has a whole web page devoted to chronicling the proof that the DFW air plan has already failed – http://www.tceq.state.tx.us/cgi-bin/compliance/monops/8hr_attainment.pl
You'll notice this page, titled "Compliance with Eight-Hour Ozone Standard" has only three columns of data, one for 2010, one for 2011, and one for 2012. No column for 2013. You'll also notice that at the end of that three year cycle, there are two sites with running average that are at or above 85 ppb. The results are in. TCEQ's second clean air plan for DFW to reach the old 1997 standard in the last four years has failed. TCEQ just can't man-up and say so.
Not only has it failed. It's actually left DFW air dirtier than when it began. Here's why:
– Two monitors now have a three year running average (design value) of 85ppb or more. This is the same number as 2010, so no change at all on that front.
– The three year average for the region's highest reading actually went up 1 ppb from 2010 (86 ppb), to 2012 (87 ppb), with a spike of 90 ppb last year. Worse than 2010.
– Six monitors saw a violation of the 85 standard this summer by posting a 4th highest reading that was 85 ppb or above. Only one monitor did that in 2010. 2012 is five times worse than 2010 by this measuring stick.
– The location of those violating monitors is of concern because they moved further east from the northwestern corner of Tarrant County where they'd been "contained" – all the way into central Dallas, where the "Hinton St. monitor" near Mockingbird and I-35 recorded a 4th highest reading of 85 ppb or above for the first time since 2005. Also proof things have gotten worse, not better.
So the latest TCEQ DFW clean air plan achieved the following: More numerous and geographically-dispersed violations, with an increase in average levels of air pollution that takes it further away from the 84 it needs to achieve, instead of bringing it closer.
To fully appreciate the agency's mendacity in its public approach to this failure, all you have to do is ask yourself how TCEQ would have reacted had it somehow achieved the miraculous decrease in air pollution its clean air plan promised. Go look at the front page of the TCEQ website. It has almost as many diatribes against the EPA as it does real environmental policy news, including opinion pieces written by TCEQ Commissioners. Do you think the agency would have waited until June 15th, 2013 to trumpet its success just because of a meaningless, bureaucratic deadline? Neither do we.
The TCEQ is never going to be a trustworthy source of information or expertise in the fight against DFW smog again while Governor Perry is in office. The sooner local officials wise-up and chart their own path, the better.
For the second time in four years a state-designed clean air plan to bring safe and legal air to DFW residents has failed, missing its goal by an even wider margin than on its first try, and leaving local air quality worse than when it started.
November 1st marked the official end of the eight-month 2012 ozone season. According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, or TCEQ, its plan was supposed to deliver record-breaking clean air to DFW this summer on its way to bringing the region into compliance with the Clean Air Act for the first time in two decades.