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Fears of pervasive air pollution stir up politics in Texas shale gas country

FORT WORTH, Texas -- For nearly a year Christine and Tim Ruggiero have battled the powerful Texas oil and gas industry and the inertia of regulators responsible for protecting air quality and public health.

Aruba Petroleum Inc. started moving dirt on the horse pasture of the couple's 10-acre lot north of Fort Worth in September. The small company out of Plano, Texas, built a drilling pad 300 feet from their front door to tap into a slice of the Barnett Shale natural gas field. Along with that came an army of backhoes, diesel trucks, gas tanks and flares spewing hazardous air pollutants 24 hours a day.

The pasture had been their 10-year-old daughter's retreat into the natural beauty of the North Texas countryside. From the start, Tim and Christine had little choice in the matter. They did not own the mineral rights to the resource prize under their land. Eventually, the Ruggieros accepted a $30,000 payment from Aruba as a friendly gift for its use of their pasture in the hunt for energy profits.

Since then, the drilling has cracked open a hornets' nest of problems: skin rashes they say were caused by exposure to cancer-causing benzene and other air pollutants; concern that methane could migrate into their water supply; and the storage of toxic mud in nearby pits. The couple says they have a sinking feeling that, unless Aruba agrees to buy the property, they are stuck there.

"They ask, 'Do you believe in the greenhouse, Tim, do you believe in global warming?'" he said. "I go, 'You know what, when you've got this thing blowing in your backyard, and you can stand on your front porch and smell propane, global warming isn't the first thing that comes to mind.'"

Gas rigs light up the night sky in Wise County, located on the northwestern fringe of greater Fort Worth. Pipes, pits and tankers share the landscape with city squares and country homes.

Inside the rock formation that underlies the 12-county Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, engineers push the limits of drilling in urban areas as producers grind across local jurisdictions and under property lines to unlock more gas from the nation's most productive shale field. Inside the city limits of Fort Worth, rigs continue to go up near schools and hospitals.

The gas industry has raised its profile in public policy circles on the national front. And it has brought along lawmakers and environmental groups in an effort to position gas as the fuel to replace coal at old power plants. Those 50-year-old coal generators spew ozone-causing pollution, mercury and carbon dioxide emissions tied to global warming. Gas turbines, though, burn cleaner and generate less of the most dangerous pollutants and emit half of the greenhouse gases.

But this year, the unbridled exuberance that characterized drilling in the Barnett Shale for the past five years is being shoved aside by critics who say addressing public health issues tied to gas production is no longer optional. Tim has joined the mayor of nearby Dish, Texas, a tiny town named for a company that gives residents free access to satellite TV, and an expanding cadre of state lawmakers, grassroots activists and environmental groups gathering in public forums to prod state regulators into action. They want gas drillers to face the same scrutiny for their air emissions as "major" emitters such as gas processing plants or oil refineries.

"Just because coal mining is worse, or that coal burns dirtier than gas, doesn't make this all safe," said Tim Ruggiero, as he picked at a small pit in his backyard that he contends is a source of methane seepage. "It burns clean compared to other fossil fuels. OK, I give you that. But if you look at the process by which they obtain the gas, I'm not so sure that all told, beginning to end, it's any cleaner than coal."

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U.S. Shale Gas Map

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Previous Installments

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About This Report

"Gas Rush" is an occasional series about the biggest U.S. energy boom in this century, the production of natural gas from shale deposits that underlie much of the northeastern United States and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana and Arkansas. It has become a multibillion-dollar business that is transforming regional economies and changing U.S. energy policy. At the same time it poses environmental risks and difficulties for state and federal regulatory agencies that must police the complex and poorly understood process of extraction.


Shale Gas Plays, Continental U.S.

Previous Installments


Concerns spread over environmental costs of producing shale gas

PITTSBURGH -- Around suppertime on June 3 in Clearfield County, Pa., a geyser of natural gas and sludge began shooting out of a well called Punxsutawney Hunting Club 36. The toxic stew of gas, salt water, mud and chemicals went 75 feet into the air for 16 hours. Four days later, as authorities were cleaning up the debris in Pennsylvania, an explosion burned seven workers at a gas well on the site of an abandoned coal mine outside of Moundsville, W.Va., just southwest of Pittsburgh. The events added force to a tough public debate in Pennsylvania and New York and across northern Appalachia about how the environmental impacts of gas drilling balance against the economic benefits of gas and the role it could play in helping electric utilities transition to cleaner fuels.


Big money drives up the betting on the Marcellus shale

Halliburton is building a permanent outpost here on the edge of a one of the 21st century's biggest energy booms. Southeast of here, on an old strawberry patch at a bend in the river, Halliburton's industrial dwelling rests against the lush landscape of hills and valleys. In July, the Texas oil services giant will start mixing cement and storing equipment for natural gas companies drilling in the tough shale rock of northeastern Pennsylvania.


A shale gas boom brings change and stress to a quiet town

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- On a farm north of this old timber town that stretches out along the banks of the Susquehanna River, Perry Landon's 82-year-old mother confronts the promises and trepidation of a new era of energy wealth. Trapped in the clay and minerals deposited under the 150-acre homestead in Tioga County where she lives is a slice of the region's multibillion-dollar bounty of natural gas. Today, as Landon tells it, a new phalanx of the deep-pocketed land speculators many thought left northern Pennsylvania's Allegheny Plateau with the lumber barons a century ago are busy poring through land records and knocking on doors. These people aren't after forestland. They're trying to lock up the underground riches in the nation's largest emerging energy basin.

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