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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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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.


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