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

Correction appended.

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."

Federal regulators look at emissions from 15,000 wells

U.S. EPA is considering how to regulate air pollution radiating from the complex of industrial activity tied to onshore gas drilling. And a fight is brewing that could force the largest and most feverishly protected industry in Texas to defend against state and federal encroachment.

In recent months the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has also stepped up its monitoring of pollution sources operating in the Barnett. But critics say that, despite independent research raising air-quality issues years ago, TCEQ acted only in response to mounting public pressure and as a result of embarrassing missteps, such as an agency decision this spring to withhold troubling information about benzene levels around Barnett Shale drilling sites.

In January 2009, Al Armendariz, then a researcher at Southern Methodist University, authored a study of air emissions tied to gas production in the Barnett Shale. Armendariz, who is now EPA's top regional official based in Dallas, projected that in the summer of 2009 emissions of nitrogen oxide and cancer-causing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from gas sources in the Barnett Shale would exceed emissions from cars and trucks in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

"Something like 15,000 wells have been drilled in an urbanized area, and there's been no upfront consideration of what that means for air quality and public health," said Ramon Alvarez, a senior scientist at the Austin office of the Environmental Defense Fund. "That was something TCEQ has needed to be dealing with for years, instead of watching this burgeoning industry explode."

Other shale fields are also in the crossfire. The Eagle Ford Shale, a developing field that runs from the South Texas border north toward Houston, is turning into a hotbed of gas liquids production, an emissions-intensive process of stripping heavy-hydrocarbon byproducts out of natural gas. Ethane, propane and butane are shipped off to chemical plants that use those in their products.

"The culture of this industry is of one that operated with very little regulatory oversight for many years," Alvarez said. "The notion that they have to do things because the state told them to is just not something they're used to."

Today, EPA is holding a public meeting in Arlington, Texas, to review air regulations affecting the oil and gas industry. And it's doing so by court order. In January 2009, the San Juan Citizens Alliance and Santa Fe, New Mexico-based WildEarth Guardians filed suit against EPA claiming it had ignored a Clean Air Act requirement that at least every eight years the agency review and revise national emissions standards for hazardous air pollutants. That includes whether onshore natural gas production, transmission and storage facilities emit significant amounts of nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, methane, carbon dioxide, and VOCs such as benzene.

Texas regulators roused from long slumber

Over the past decade, onshore gas wells have proliferated, and 13,000 miles of new interstate pipelines have been built. The nation's gas storage capacity has expanded by more than 670 billion cubic feet since 2006.

In February, a district court judge required that by Jan. 31, 2011, EPA propose standards or explain why it won't propose new emissions standards for the oil and gas industry. The proposals should be finalized by November 2011. In considering this, EPA will have to examine whether the cumulative effect of thousands of gas wells concentrated in an urban area is enough to trigger Clean Air Act provisions for major polluters and a level of federal oversight that doesn't exist today.

EPA has also proposed a rule that would require onshore gas producers, processors, pipelines and storage facilities to report their greenhouse gas emissions.

In Texas, as a result of a regulatory process dating to the expansion of the American West, the Texas Railroad Commission permits oil and gas drilling. TCEQ is responsible for enforcing air emissions.

On air quality issues, jurisdiction is also split. EPA enforces emissions limits for "major" sources of industrial pollution. It delegates Clean Air Act authority to states so they can develop programs that apply to local power plants, high-emissions industries and, in the case of Texas, large natural gas processing plants and oil refineries. States then are free to limit or not limit the impact of "minor" sources of air pollution, including individual oil and gas drilling sites.

Texas, until just recently, has chosen a hands-off approach toward regulating air emissions out of the Barnett. TCEQ recently completed an initial phase of its first inventory of gas production-related emissions sources in the Barnett Shale, and the agency says it plans to collect emissions data from operators in the gas basin.

TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw, who Gov. Rick Perry (R) appointed to the commission in 2007, asserts Texas has cut pollution overall. But he concedes population growth in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, and encroachment of gas drilling, challenges the state's ability to keep the metroplex in good air-quality standing. In the past year, he says, TCEQ monitoring for concentrations of benzene and other toxic pollutants around drilling sites "has escalated in its intensity."

"We've been trying to find ways of doing independent studies," he told ClimateWire.

Last Wednesday, TCEQ proposed new rules to help it monitor emissions out of the Barnett. If adopted, it would create enforceable monitoring, sampling and record-keeping rules. The agency also said it is installing five "state-of-the-art" long-term air-quality monitors. So far, said the agency, the monitors have shown low levels of benzene.

Still, TCEQ has come under fire in recent months for being far too slow to respond to mounting concern about urban drilling. In an interview in June, Shaw criticized EPA's Armendariz for equating drilling with the impact of cars and trucks on producing ground-level ozone. And he has defended the state's limited "permit by rule" oversight of individual smaller-scale polluters in the oil and gas industry.

Coming clean with benzene levels?

"If they're operated well, the environmental issues should be workable," he said. "We need to find ways to incentivize the industry to police itself."

For its part, Texas oil and gas industry groups are trying to keep their powder dry. The Texas Oil & Gas Association is urging regulators, short of keeping current regulations in place, to allow gas producers to adopt air-emissions technology of their choice as opposed to a mandate.

As she prepared to give her presentation at the Aug. 2 EPA meeting, Debbie Hastings, the gas group's vice president for environmental affairs, said Texas shouldn't be targeted just because of its big oil and gas producers. "This state, just like any other state, should maintain its right to manage its minor sources."

Pushback against urban drilling and concern about the air are reshaping political alliances and could erode some support for Perry in Republican strongholds outside of Dallas and Fort Worth.

TCEQ, which under the Perry administration has been a fierce defender of states' rights on environmental issues, found itself the target of a Republican congressman in June, The Texas Observer and an army of local and state officials.

The newspaper in late May uncovered a TCEQ internal audit that found the agency had hidden information about air monitoring data collected at the end of last year. In early January, TCEQ officials gave what many described as a rosy presentation to the public, suggesting concentrations of 22 toxic compounds did not exceed safe limits.

According to a whistleblower complaint and a subsequent audit, the agency hadn't used the most updated equipment tuned to detect a handful of those compounds. When TCEQ updated findings to show dangerous levels of benzene in some areas, critics assert, the agency buried the new information instead of alerting public officials or the media.

Rep. Michael Burgess, a four-term congressman from Fort Worth, called for an immediate investigation by the Texas Attorney General. Burgess pulled the request but sent a letter calling on a high-level state review panel to investigate. He took some heat for the turnabout, but his response helped galvanize other lawmakers concerned that TCEQ is more interested in protecting gas industry profits than public health.

"There is a sense the public has that their best interests might not be protected," Burgess said in a House Energy and Commerce Committee Republican caucus room. "As long as that unease exists, the industry's going to be viewed with a lot of suspicion."

State regulators have a credibility problem, Burgess said, not a resource or manpower problem in terms of monitoring and regulating air emissions out of the Barnett. But gas drilling in North Texas shouldn't be shut down, he said, just as a moratorium on offshore drilling is too dramatic of a response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. "There's got to be a point between full stop and full-speed ahead."

'Stable political environment' begins to crumble

Burgess said giving EPA sweeping authority isn't the answer. But he noted the ongoing debate in Washington about the safety of hydraulic fracturing. The "fracking" process injects water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground under extremely high pressure, past the aquifer, to split the shale-rock and release trapped natural gas.

In Texas, Burgess said, little towns in the Barnett are considering banning drilling. Flower Mound, at the heart of drilling in Tarrant and Denton Counties, in June imposed a 90-day moratorium on local permits for wells and drilling pads.

Burgess put it on the biggest players in the Barnett, such as Devon Energy Corp., Chesapeake Energy Corp., Exxon Mobil Corp. and Williams Companies to help address public concern. "Right now they like that they have a geologic formation where they can make a profit. They like the fact they have a stable political environment," he said. "But if they damage it because of their own actions, they have nobody to blame but themselves."

The growing din is changing Texas politics. Air quality in urban centers has become an issue in the race for governor. Perry's race against Bill White, the former Democratic mayor of Houston, is emerging as one of the most competitive Texas governor's races in years. Perry's 9-point edge, according to a Rasmussen poll in mid-July, is considered a modest lead in this decidedly red state.

Perry, a bombastic two-term governor, has been in a pitched battle with EPA over what he considers fundamental states' rights issues. EPA, with Armendariz at the helm in Dallas, at the end of June ruled that the Texas "flexible permitting" program for major polluters sidesteps Clean Air Act requirements. More than 100 of the state's largest polluters operate under a flexible permit that allows a single emissions cap for a group of sources at an industrial complex, rather than ensuring each smokestack falls under emissions limits.

This kind of dispute plays into Perry's base of support, said Harvey Kronberg, publisher of the Quorum Report, a political newsletter in Austin. "Rick Perry would much rather run against Barack Obama in Texas than a Bill White."

Fumes penetrate race for governor

Perry is also applying his Texas v. Obama campaign to gas drilling. Democrats in Congress want to require companies to disclose chemicals they pump into the ground near fresh water aquifers. Requiring disclosure is tantamount to outlawing fracking, Perry asserts, and would "shut down the oil and gas industry."

Perry and White both fancy themselves oil and gas men. But White has blasted Perry's use of the EPA dispute "for the purpose of political theater," and he's joined the bandwagon of criticism for TCEQ's handling of benzene monitoring.

Jim Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, Austin, said air quality issues probably aren't potent enough yet to put a major dent into the GOP base outside of Dallas and Fort Worth. "We're still a little ways away from triggering a wholesale partisan change, but it's made it more competitive in the outlying areas."

From a small cabin stationed on a Devon Energy Corp. gas rig, the green line on a computer screen charts the progress of a drill bit churning a mile underground. A jungle of modern industrial gear surrounding the rig powers production out of the Barnett Shale.

Since joining Mitchell Energy almost 20 years ago, and now as a construction manager for Devon, Jay Ewing has a lot of faith in the Barnett's ability to produce increasing amounts of gas.

"We now have the technology," Ewing said in early June, as he toured the company's drilling and production sites north of the city. "We can drill a lot of wells and get them online in a pretty short time frame." Better yet, the gas industry can almost guarantee its production volumes.

Devon is out in front of other companies operating in the Barnett. It uses advanced technology to capture its emissions and a recycling system that reduces its water use. But Devon has also been criticized for joining others in the industry fighting attempts to require the use of those technologies.

Back in Wise County, Tim and Christine Ruggiero heard from TCEQ in January after filing a citizen's complaint. The agency noted in its investigative report that Aruba Petroleum's continuous operation of three large diesel engines resulted in "significant emissions" of nitrogen oxide.

At high levels, the compound causes asthma, emphysema and bronchitis.

TCEQ didn't impose a fine. Instead, regulators concluded, "Aruba should consider using nitrogen oxide controls on its diesel engines in situations where off-site impacts are high."

The response doesn't begin to address Tim Ruggiero's main question: "Why would you put something like this so close to a home?"

Correction: The TCEQ internal audit finding the agency had hidden information about air monitoring data was uncovered by The Texas Observer, not by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, as a previous version of this story incorrectly stated.

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