Fracking's air pollution could push region toward ozone non-attainment

Greg Harman

[email protected]

Watching the regulatory kabuki up in North Texas can't inspire a lot of confidence in the increasing number of South Texans leasing their land for so-called “non-traditional” natural gas development in the subterranean Eagle Ford shale.

Late last month, the industry's PR front organization, the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, released a little report that could have been titled, Frack Gas: Good For You Or What?, and branded with big double-thumbs up.

Dutifully reported as a news nugget by the Fort Worth Business Press, the totally underwhelming finding of industry's contracted environmental engineers? Natural gas drilling put “some contaminants” into the air, but “not at levels that would cause any health concerns,” Titan Engineering wrote.

Even when the readings ran red-hot â?? such as was the case when formaldehyde was detected at levels that activist/blogger Sharon Wilson charted at nearly three times Houston Ship Channel's worst â?? they were rationalized away in the gas company's favor.

“â?¦ it is TITAN's opinion that the elevated formaldehyde concentrations are not being caused by `natural gas` Site operations, but instead are being caused by both vehicular traffic and an unidentified source located to the near south/southwest of the NG Site. During the sampling event, TITAN field personnel did not identify any type of emission source that could have caused or contributed to the formaldehyde concentrations â?¦”

Wilson wasn't alone in her critique.

Jay Olaguer, director of air quality research at the Houston Advanced Research Center, presented his analysis of the industry report last week, suggesting formaldehyde levels were being regularly underestimated. The industry blowback on Olaguer was significant enough for the researcher that he asked the Current to submit all questions in writing.

Formaldehyde readings of the Titan study â?? which, in the above referenced case, reached 126 parts per billion â?? were “astoundingly high,” Olaguer replied by email. “I've never heard of ambient `formaldehyde` concentrations that high â?¦ except in Brazil where they use alternative fuels such as ethanol and gasohol for automobiles.”

And yet what industry is actually putting into North Texas skies could be up to a hundred times greater than even the Titan study suggests. At least that's what HARC teams found when they used more advanced sampling techniques to sniff out the Houston Ship Channel in May of last year.

Aside from potential public-health impacts of formaldehyde (which can cause difficulty breathing at levels above 100 ppb and is a suspected cancer-causer, according to the EPA), the chemical is also a “powerful radical precursor” that jumpstarts the creation of ground-level ozone.

How powerful is it?

Olaguer writes of a recent case in Wyoming:

â?¦ it was discovered that there are severe ozone exceedances in the middle of winter (long thought impossible) over the Jonah/Pinedale oil and gas fields. After I informed Wyoming DEQ of the SHARP study results that implicated formaldehyde as an under-reported radical and ozone precursor, they commissioned a fast-turnaround study by TRC to look at the impact of formaldehyde emissions from drill rig engines on wintertime ozone. TRC found that when they put those emissions in (there were none at all previously), wintertime ozone over the gas fields spiked enormously.

“This would likely put some rural areas into ozone non-attainment, possibly including areas with intensive oil and gas exploration and production,” Olaguer wrote.

Something for all of South Texas to be thinking about as EPA ozone regulations are tightened this year.

Meanwhile, Alyssa Burgin, who has been organizing and educating residents on the topics of climate change and water scarcity through the Texas Drought Project for more than a year, says the experiences in North Texas (and elsewhere. Remember the Pennsylvania cattle quarantine?) is a message for South Texas.

And yet â?¦ “I'm very concerned that people aren't being fully informed about the dangers of this, not only to their own properties and their own health and lives, but also to their neighbors,” Burgin said. “There's going to be much more of this, as prices climb in particular, and people recognize that presumably this is doable on an economic basis.”

Expect some public hearings across South Texas on this stuff in the near future. But, yeah, don't expect public health and ozone to be taken up when Hart Energy hosts a San Antonio conference on fracking the Eagle Ford this October. Judging from Titan's offering, that's probably for the best.

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