Fort Worth considers scaling back number of wells involved in air quality study

A report to the City Council on Tuesday recommends reducing the number of wells included in a study on the effects of natural gas drilling on air quality in Fort Worth because the company conducting the tests underestimated the magnitude of the effort.

Cutting back the sample size from 75 percent of Fort Worth's 1,700 active wells to 50 percent would not compromise the scientific value and objectivity of the work and would produce more precise results by enabling more detailed testing at each site, the report stated.

"This council is committed to a scientifically valid study," said Mayor Mike Moncrief, who, along with his council colleagues, is expected to take up the matter at the next meeting Nov. 9. "Anything less than that is not acceptable."

In August, the council approved contracts with the Eastern Research Group for $650,000 to test for air pollution around natural gas drilling sites.

Council members promoted the testing as an unprecedented examination of how drilling in the Barnett Shale gas field affects air quality. The work could also be groundbreaking as one of the first thoroughly documented studies on urban drilling.

"Everyone who is involved either directly or indirectly in [the] shale play in this country or beyond will be looking at [the study]," Moncrief said. "We are a test case here. We need to do it right."

City officials also hope the study will help assuage concerns among some that community that urban gas drilling is not safe, even though the industry and the Texas Commission of Environmental Quality have maintained that it is.

Under the contract, Eastern was to test every phase of gas development, from drilling, to well completions, hydraulic fracturing and pipeline operations.

After starting preliminary testing, Eastern discovered that its plan to test about 1,275 active wells was more labor intensive than original estimates. As of last week, about 178 well pad sites had been visited for the report due in March.

In addition to using infrared cameras and toxic-vapor analyzers to examine gas installations, the analysis would, under the modified proposal, also include more chemical testing, said Fernando Costa, an assistant city manager.

Esther McElfish, president of the North Central Texas Communities Alliance, said in an e-mail that she questioned why if Eastern proposed reducing the number of wells, it didn't also offer to reduce the cost. Councilman Zim Zimmerman openly wondered the same during a pre-council meeting Tuesday.

"The citizens of Fort Worth want and expect this air quality study to be conducted in a reliable, thorough, and scientific manner without any shortcuts or reductions," McElfish said.

In a separate event Tuesday, a group of drilling activists announced the launch of a new nonprofit group aimed at funding and conducting environmental testing in communities where urban drilling is taking place.

"There just simply is not enough data out there," said Dish Mayor Calvin Tillman, in presenting at a news conference Tuesday.

The group plans to fund air and water tests through donations and grants and focus much of its efforts on low-income communities where residents can't afford private testing, Tillman said.

Staff writer Aman Batheja contributed to this report.

John Henry, 817-390-7539