Pollution from oil and gas industry activity will trigger hundreds of thousands of asthma and acute respiratory attacks in Texas each year unless methane emissions are reduced, according to a study released Wednesday by a national environmental group.
Nearly 145,000 asthma attacks in children and more than 283,000 incidences of adults struggling to breathe would be attributable to oil and gas pollution, according to Gasping for Breath, a study co-sponsored by Earthworks and the Clean Air Task Force.
The Fort Worth-Dallas area would be the hardest hit, with about 46,000 children suffering asthma attacks and roughly 94,000 instances of adults suffering serious respiratory ailments, after separating out health impacts from ozone that cannot be linked to energy industry emissions, the study states.
Nationally, there are more than 750,000 summertime asthma attacks in children under the age of 18 each year that are caused by smog created by oil and gas pollution, according to the study’s authors.
“Oil and gas has not been subject to air pollution standards in the way that other major polluters have, and there are feasible and cost effective ways to regulate it,” said Lesley Fleischman, the study’s lead author.
Oil and gas has not been subject to air pollution standards in the way that other major polluters have, and there are feasible and cost effective ways to regulate it,
Lesley Fleischman, the study’s lead author
The researchers say this is the first study to quantify the national health impact in the United States of smog created by pollutants released into the atmosphere by the oil and gas industry. The study examined the projected emissions from May to September based on EPA modeling for expected levels by 2025.
The report, based on an independent analysis by a researcher at Colorado State University, supports stronger regulations of methane emissions by federal and state governments.
Energy industry leaders in Texas aren’t convinced. Earthworks is known as a biased organization with a key mission of slowing or stopping the development of hydrocarbons in the country, said Ed Longanecker, president of Texas Independent Producers and Royalty Owners.
“The Texas Department of State Health Services also completed multiple investigations and found no evidence of a ‘cancer cluster’ or related health issues” in counties where oil and gas development emerged, Longanecker said. “These anti-oil and natural gas policies being advanced by politically biased agencies and environmental activist organizations offer little, if any, true environmental benefits, but could very well threaten our national economy and the success of our nation’s energy industry.”
In recent months, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a new set of rules aimed at slashing methane emissions to protect public health and reduce pollution linked to cancer and other serious health problems. The regulations cover future, but not existing, facilities.
Under the new rules, oil and gas producers are required to limit releases of methane and volatile organic compounds at hydraulically fractured oil wells. It also targets leaks “downstream” at equipment used to compress and transport natural gas to market.
The claim that oil and gas development is a major contributor to Texas ozone levels has been repeatedly disproven with state data and these groups know it,
Steve Everly, a spokesman for Energy in Depth
Texas has joined other states in suing the federal agency, calling its efforts “federal overreach.” The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has an extensive monitoring system in Fort Worth and Dallas which has consistently shown oil and gas development is not a major contributor to ozone, said Steve Everley, a spokesman for North Texans for Natural Gas, a pro-drilling group formed by the energy industry.
“The claim that oil and gas development is a major contributor to Texas ozone levels has been repeatedly disproven with state data and these groups know it,” Everley said. “If you shut down all oil and gas development in North Texas, you would devastate the local economy and not put a dent in regional ozone levels.”
A study by John Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health, while finding that asthma treatments were four times more common among patients living closer to active wells, also did not establish that fracking directly caused or worsened asthma.
Gasping for Breath builds on a report released by Earthworks in June stating that 2.3 million Texans live close enough to oil and gas wells, compressors and processors to cause concern about potential health threats. The residents lived within a half-mile radius of 398,787 active oil and gas facilities.
But this study goes one step further to show that larger populations that are not near an oil or gas well also are threatened because unhealthy ozone levels cover a broader area. “These emissions travel across county lines and travel long distances and we’re highlighting that in this report,” Fleischman said.
Fourteen of the top 30 counties with asthma attacks risks among children are in west Texas or the Panhandle, with Gaines County at the top with 798 children per 10,000 threatened, according to the study.
Dangerous levels of ozone are created when volatile organic compounds such as methane, hydrogen, sulfur and nitrogen are released into the air and heated by the sunlight to create smog. While natural gas processing separates toxic components from raw gas, some of it still remains and leaks out later, the report states.
Fort Worth and Dallas are among the top 10 metropolitan areas for asthma attacks. Houston is fourth with about 22,000 asthma attacks among school-age children and San Antonio is ninth with roughly 15,000 incidents, the study shows. Fourteen of the top 30 counties at risk for asthma attacks among children are in west Texas or the Panhandle.
The study encourages the EPA to cut methane emissions in half by imposing new standards to significantly reduce ozone smog-forming pollution from existing and future oil and gas wells and processing sites. These fixes, like those implemented in Colorado in 2014, don’t necessarily have to be viewed as crippling to the industry, said Alan Septoff, strategic communications director for Earthworks.
“Our end game is to protect people who are forced to live with oil and gas development,” Septoff said. “They need help now and we need regulations to help those people deal with pollution from existing facilities and the cost is minimal.”
Texas Railroad Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said public safety and health is the agency’s highest priority by maintaining a strong regulatory framework.
“It starts with the permitting process for all oil and gas facilities to ensure they are built in compliance with our rules and continues through inspections, and when necessary enforcement actions,” she said.
The TCEQ also took aim at the report, saying that the authors provided insufficient detail to fully evaluate it. The agency, which remains committed to improving air quality, also said the study failed to take into account the steps the agency has taken to “control emissions associated with oil and gas production,” spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said.
Rules issued by TCEQ in 2007 have cut nitrogen oxide emissions by 93 percent in Fort Worth and Dallas area natural gas compressor engines, and the agency’s studies indicate that oil and gas emissions in Texas contribute very little to smog in the Metroplex on high ozone days, with the majority of pollutants coming from the tailpipes of vehicles, she said.
Cost effective fixes
While he can’t estimate what it cost Anadarko Petroleum to implement methane controls in Colorado, the moves definitely have had a positive impact on ozone levels, said Korby Bracken, the company’s environmental, health and safety director in the Rockies. Anadarko, Noble Energy and Encana Corp. worked with environmentalists and state regulators to adopt new emission controls in 2014.
Companies must install equipment to minimize leaking of toxic gases and to control or capture 95 percent of emissions.
“It was something we were already doing. We may not have been doing it by strict rules in the regulations ... But we are happy with the compromise,” Bracken said.
This story contains material from Bloomberg News.