(The article, posted March 29, 2010 on the Environmental Defense Fund website, is the reaction of EDF senior scientist, Ramon Alvarez, to a briefing in Austin put on by the Barnett Shale natural gas producers. Drilling in the Barnett Shale in Central and North Texas — as with gas drilling in New York , Pennsylvania and other states — has faced increasing public resistance as concerns surface about associated air and water pollution and the proximity of wells to residential areas.)
By Ramon Alvarez, Ph.D.
No one can fault the natural gas industry for trying to make its case before influential policy makers and the public. But there’s a certain responsibility associated with billing yourself as the purveyor of “facts:” Your information needs to be true. Loose use of facts will backfire on the natural gas industry.
Last week, I went to a presentation by the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council at the Texas Capitol. The Council represents over a dozen companies including the seven largest producers in the Barnett (Devon, Chesapeake, XTO, EOG, Quicksilver, EnCana, and Range). This briefing for legislators and their staff was billed as the first installment of a road show bringing the “facts” about natural gas production in the Barnett Shale to the public. (Coincidentally, the Council’s capitol briefing took place on the same day a Pennsylvania paper reported on a similar effort by the American Petroleum Institute to tout the environmental record of the natural gas industry.)
I found two factually-challenged statements made by the Council’s spokesperson, Ed Ireland, especially disappointing given the heightened public concern (in the Barnett and elsewhere) about air pollution associated with natural gas production.
Council Spokesperson’s Statement 1: There is a ‘misperception’ that natural gas operations produce benzene.
The Facts: While there is variability in the amount of benzene (and other hydrocarbons) contained in natural gas produced in different parts of the Barnett Shale, the fact is that benzene is commonly present at least in trace amounts – even in dry gas. The TCEQ’s experts have said say so.
Even the Council’s own website acknowledges that dry natural gas contains benzene. And then it further acknowledges that condensate tanks associated with natural gas wells emit benzene. Neither of these facts was included in the Council spokesperson’s sweeping and unequivocal statement at the Capitol briefing.
Council Spokesperson’s Statement 2: Air quality studies to date show there is not a day-to-day problem associated with gas operations.
The Facts: Contrary to the statement, there is evidence that gas operations can affect surrounding air quality in the region. This is especially true in parts of the Barnett Shale that produce condensate. TCEQ has conducted fairly extensive monitoring to date, though it could not be characterized yet as comprehensive (see January results). Other local governments and private citizens around the Barnett Shale have also commissioned their own monitoring analyses.
Here is a summary of my take on the TCEQ’s air sampling:
Air pollution levels exceeded TCEQ’s health-based comparison value for benzene in at least one sample taken in every one of the counties TCEQ tested (Denton, Hood, Johnson, Parker, Tarrant and Wise). Note that list includes a sample with elevated benzene taken in Tarrant County [home to Fort Worth].
While TCEQ’s press release and much of the media coverage about its January report refers to 94 sites that were “surveyed,” measurements for benzene and other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) were made only at 64 locations. Because many of the 64 monitoring sites were clustered around each other, we estimate from the aerial maps provided in TCEQ’s report that 32 unique areas around the Barnett Shale were sampled for VOCs.
Benzene levels at 22 of the 64 monitoring sites were above the TCEQ’s long-term, health-based comparison value of 1.4 parts per billion. These sites are within 11 of the 32 unique areas sampled. At least seven of these 11 unique areas contain or are in close proximity to residences.
Bottom line on TCEQ’s results: When one out of every three areas sampled throughout the Barnett Shale show elevated levels of benzene, it suggests that harmful air emissions are not a rare occurrence.
And before anyone adopts the Council’s statement included in its handout, “TCEQ Fort Worth air quality tests found no detectable levels of benzene at any of the 116 [sic] natural gas sites tested,” please consider the following facts about TCEQ’s limited sampling campaign in the City limits during December 2009. Although 126 sites were “visited” by TCEQ in the Fort Worth area (98 within the city limits), only eight canister samples were taken and analyzed for benzene. And while benzene levels in these eight samples were reported as “not detected” by the TCEQ, the fine print in its report acknowledges that the lowest amount of benzene its analytical instrument could detect was two to seven times higher than the health-based comparison value of 1.4 ppb.
In other words, TCEQ’s testing during the three-day Fort Worth campaign could have easily missed elevated benzene levels.
The Opportunity for Natural Gas Producers
Here is the bottom line: If the natural gas industry wants to deliver on the promise that natural gas – a valuable and potentially plentiful U.S. resource – can be a cleaner transition fuel to a low-carbon economy, then it must conduct its business in the most ethically and environmentally responsible way possible. Public relations campaigns based on flawed facts run the risk of further eroding public trust in the industry, thereby killing the proverbial golden goose (or shooting themselves in the foot).
Rather than continuing to deny that there are emissions associated with their operations, natural gas producers should instead demonstrate to the public that they are employing all technologies that can cost-effectively minimize those emissions. We hope the Council’s members will encourage their non-profit education arm to do a better job of presenting the facts.
At the Capitol briefing, someone in the audience asked if there was hope of moving past the status quo of dueling studies and parties trying to discredit other parties. The Council’s spokesperson offered that the effort being initiated by City of Fort Worth (to better characterize air quality impacts from natural gas production activities) could be a move in that positive direction. We couldn’t agree more.
(This article is entitled The Truth About the Facts from the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council on the EDF website. Dr. Alvarez holds a Bachelor’s of Science degree in chemistry from Duke University and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley.)