By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Pollution from natural gas drilling is a key factor in North Texas’ continuing smog pollution problems, but the skies could be much cleaner if natural gas drilling companies would take a few simple steps, according to a citizens’ clean air group.
The 9-county area around Dallas and Fort Worth has struggled to meet the EPA’s clean air standards set for the region, despite warnings to improve air quality dating to the early 1990s. Now, even though pollution from cars and trucks has been reduced through better tailpipe technology, the region still fails to meet basic clean air benchmarks. The reason, clean air advocates say, is the natural gas industry.
Hundreds of drilling operations in the region release tons of methane gas, a greenhouse gas 21 times as potent as carbon dioxide, as well as Volatile Organic Compounds, like benzene and formaldehyde, every day.
Yet the solution to this noxious problem is right under the operators’ noses, according to the Downwinders at Risk citizens group.
If these drilling operations would simply use the state-of-the art valves, vapor recovery and pneumatic devices available to them to curb emissions they’d not only capture the VOC pollutants that contribute to the area’s ongoing smog and ozone pollution, they’d save millions of dollars in escaped product, said Jim Schermbeck, director of the Downwinders.
“Everybody seems to agree that it’s really cheap to do and that once you get it done, it starts to pay you back really, really quickly,” Schermbeck said.
These are the conclusions of an academic report, “Leaking Money,” by environmental engineer Dr. Melanie Sattler that was commissioned by the Downwinders at Risk Education Fund.
The report, released last week, found that natural gas drillers operating in North Texas could recover vast quantities of natural gas from valve leaks and other sources of leakage – all of which could be sold either as natural gas, as chemical feedstock or as base material for gasoline. Furthermore, the recapture could be done with existing technology.
Reducing VOC emissions with these various techniques, reports Dr. Sattler, would be “win-win: increased revenues for the natural gas industry, and lower ozone-forming volatile organic compound (VOC) emission for the citizens of North Central Texas.”
Sattler calculated that natural gas companies operating in North Texas could earn up to $51.9 million a year in new revenues by recapturing VOCs and methane that’s currently leaking from natural gas wells and storage tanks. SHe based her figures on a current intermediate price for commercial natural gas.
Pneumatic devices installed on tanks, pipelines, condensing equipment and all throughout the natural gas process would account for more than half of the savings, up to $35 million in the 9-county region that the EPA has designated as “non-attainment” for ozone or ground-level smog pollution, according to the report.
The devices would keep 71 tons of VOC emissions from escaping each year; VOCs that contribute to smog and exacerbate asthma and other respiratory illnesses among people living in the DFW area.
Retrofitting current operations for these pneumatic devices would not represent a burdensome cost, according to “Leaking Money.” The report estimated that most retrofit installations would pay for themselves in six months to a year.
In addition, the report noted that many companies already use such devices. Schermbeck said that some companies like Devon Energy are known for operating in more environmentally responsible ways, by installing such recapture and anti-leak devices from the beginning.
“This technology has been out for quite awhile, it just hasn’t been mandated,” Schermbeck said.
Downwinders would like the state of Texas to require more of natural gas drillers. The group hopes to get public support for its “Fair Share” campaign, which asks drillers to do their fair share for clean air, by publicizing Sattler’s results and pushing for the state to enact stricter rules for drillers. Changes at the state level are needed to support cities and counties trying to keep air pollution in check both for residents and for other businesses that want to operate in a clean environment.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has set stronger standards for Nitrous Oxide emissions, but not for VOCs.
Yet the state agency’s own projections show that the natural gas and oil industries together are emitting nearly 100 tons of VOC air pollution every day in North Texas. By 2012, TCEQ estimates that the two industries will be spewing 103 tons of VOC pollution each day from condensate (storage) tanks and through valves at various points in the production and collection system.
Pressure to do more could come from a report on pollution from natural gas drilling commissioned by the city of Fort Worth. Due out at the end of June, it’s expected to help illuminate the problem of air pollution from drilling operations, Schermbeck said.
The Barnett Shale drilling region, which cuts through Fort Worth, and includes counties south, west and north of the city, has been a hot spot for hydraulic “fracking” along with other areas of the country with shale gas deposits, such as the Marcellus Shale region that stretches across much of Appalachia into central New York state.
Citizen groups in several cities affected by the encroachment of natural gas drilling into urban areas have scrambled to mitigate the environmental damage. But without stronger regulation or mandates from TCEQ – which Schermbeck says is stacked with industry representatives – residents in Texas have too little power at the local level to curb air pollution from drillers.
The health risks from smog and ground-level ozone are well documented. The American Lung Association cataloged many of these effects in a recent article urging strong federal guidelines for ozone:
- “A strong ozone pollution standard will prevent life-threatening health effects. Ozone burns lungs and airways, causing them to become inflamed, reddened, and swollen. Children and teens, senior citizens, and people with lung diseases like asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and others are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of ozone. When inhaled even at low levels, ozone can cause chest pain and coughing, aggravate asthma, reduce lung function, increase emergency room visits and hospital admissions for respiratory problems, and lead to irreversible lung damage. Ozone can even cause premature death.”
Schermbeck said there are many anecdoctal stories of people moving to North Texas, near a gas well operation, who have experienced respiratory ailments, watery eyes and lethargy that hadn’t bothered them where they previously lived.
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