North Texas residents want to protect economy as well as the air

ARLINGTON -- Dozens of people called on the federal government Monday to help clean up air pollution tied to natural gas drilling in Texas, while others cautioned that the government should be careful not to overreach its authority or hurt the state's economy.

Natural gas produces less pollution than coal, particularly when it's burned to generate electricity, said Michelle Bloodworth, vice president of the trade group America's Natural Gas Alliance. About 2.8 million people nationwide work in the natural gas industry, she said during an Environmental Protection Agency meeting to discuss new regulations on air pollution from oil and gas.

"We can develop this resource, and we can do it in a safe and responsible way," she said.

The meeting covered oil and gas production, but most of the discussion focused on the ongoing natural gas boom in Texas and other states.

Several residents said they believe that gas development may contribute to ozone and other forms of air pollution.

Tim Ruggiero, who has a drilling site 300 feet from his home in Decatur, said the industry is whitewashing the seriousness of the problem. His family has been sickened by fumes from the wells, and chemicals have appeared in his water well, he said. "The only people that are claiming the air is perfectly clean are the ones that are pumping carcinogens into it or toxics into it."

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has detected higher-than-normal levels of benzene, a chemical that causes cancer, around compressors and well sites in the Barnett Shale, which lies beneath Dallas and Fort Worth.

But the state agency has been slow to act, only recently taking a major inventory of wells and other equipment in the Barnett Shale.

"We're looking to the EPA as kind of a last hope for real meaningful enforcement of the Clean Air Act," said Sara Bagheri, a lawyer who works with Texans for Responsible and Accountable Energy Development. She said it's a myth that regulations could reduce the number of jobs.

"There is a cost to oil and gas development, and right now it's being borne by the public," she said.

The EPA is rewriting a series of regulations as part of a legal settlement with two environmental groups. The suit claimed that the EPA missed deadlines under the Clean Air Act to review its rules on toxic emissions from pipelines, compressors and processing plants. The EPA agreed in the settlement to rewrite the rules by November 2011.

The EPA wants to look at all aspects of gas production, from the time gas wells are drilled to the time gas arrives at customers' homes and businesses, said Bruce Moore, senior technical adviser for the EPA's air permitting office. The EPA has rules, for instance, for emissions from storage tanks, but it doesn't have rules for well completions, the phase when wells are sometimes vented to clean out debris.

"We're going to do this thing right," Moore said.

The agency is concerned about the increase in natural gas drilling that started in the Barnett Shale and spread to similar geological formations across the country.

There are about 14,000 active wells in the Barnett Shale, which lies under 18 North Texas counties, and thousands more are possible. Similar development is under way in other shale formations.

"There's a lot of concerted activity going on to get at this shale gas, there's been a lot of concern on your part and other people in the public about the water and air impacts of these operations," Moore said. "We're trying to do our part to establish our understanding of what those impacts are."

Texas officials have generally opposed the EPA's involvement, saying state regulators are doing a good job of reducing emissions.

"I hope we can carefully study and tailor cost-effective solutions that will provide the biggest bang for everyone's shrinking budget," said Leslie Savage, with the Texas Railroad Commission.

State Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, said there's a perception in Texas that the federal government wants to slow the state's economy.

"I've heard people say they want to level the playing field, that the only reason Texas has succeeded economically is because they cheated environmentally," he said.

Jeremy Nichols, with WildEarth Guardians, said much of the pollution could be addressed with existing technology. His nonprofit was one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that forced the EPA to reconsider its regulations.

Vapor recovery systems could cut down on the fumes from storage tanks, and using electric motors for compressors, instead of gas-fired engines, would cut down on soot and other pollutants. So-called "green completions" could recapture the gas that would otherwise be vented during the completion phase.

"Reducing emissions is often good for the industry's bottom line," Nichols said.

The settlement requires the EPA to write the new rules by January. The rules are scheduled to be final in November 2011.

Mike Lee, 817-390-7539