State regulators say emissions from oil and gas operations are not a major contributor to air pollution in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, calling into question a recent environmental report linking methane leaks to an anticipated rise in asthma attacks.
A recent study released by Earthworks and the Clean Air Task Force claimed that unless methane releases from oil and gas operations are reduced by 2025, nearly 145,000 asthma attacks in children and more than 283,000 incidences of adults struggling to breathe would be triggered.
But Texas Commission on Environmental Quality data shows that operations associated with the energy industry in Fort Worth and Dallas contribute 1.8 parts per billion to ozone levels on the worst days, from May to September, while planes, trains and automobiles contribute 14.1 parts per billion. Those measurements also were taken during the peak times of the ozone season, agency officials said.
David Brymer, the agency’s director of air quality, voiced doubts about how Earthworks and the Clean Air Task Force used its computer models to produce the information and then how they analyzed that data. Brymer cautioned that they have insufficient information to entirely evaluate the environmental report.
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“The important part of modeling is what goes into it and how you interpret the result,” Brymer said.
The report, which was based on an independent analysis by a researcher at Colorado State University, referenced data and models that are used by states to judge compliance with national ozone standards, said Alan Septoff, strategic communications director for Earthworks.
If done exactly right, there shouldn’t be a problem ... But they are done on such a massive scale that are going to be some failures in equipment and inefficiencies.
Kevin Schug, analytical chemistry professor, UTA
The researchers said this was the first study to quantify the health impact in the United States of smog created by pollutants released into the air by the oil and gas industry. It was based on the projected emissions from May to September based on EPA modeling for expected levels by 2025.
“This is really standard stuff,” Septoff said in defending the report. “We’re not going out on a limb. It is a model used by states to comply with the national clean air standards. We did not make up some method to make the oil and gas industry look bad.”
In recent months, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a new set of rules aimed at reducing 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.
Texas and other states are suing the EPA over the new regulations, calling it “federal overreach.”
Since nitrogen oxides are the dominant precursors for ozone in Texas, not methane, the state has taken vigorous steps to control it, Brymer and other agency officials said. In 2007, the agency issued rules that resulted in a 93 percent reduction in nitrogen oxide, agency officials said.
We did not make up some method to make the oil and gas industry look bad.
Alan Septoff, strategic communications director, Earthworks
Those reductions also came at a time when drilling for natural gas in the Barnett Shale in North Texas was booming and the population was booming, Brymer said.
In 2000, emissions contributed 102 parts per billion to ozone levels while in 2015 it was at 83 parts per billion, showing that the majority of the monitors showed compliance with the federal 75 parts per billion standard, Brymer said. And that was when the population in the area grew by 35 percent, he said.
“The Dallas-Fort Worth area has come a long way,” Brymer said.
This decline also came at a time when, nationwide, the percentage of children suffering from asthma plateaued and even slightly decreased since 2008, said Andrea Morrow, an agency spokeswoman. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, asthma attacks have decreased since 2011 for all age groups, she said. Those statistics were “notably missing” from the Earthworks report, she said.
Industry officials also pointed to a recent, peer-reviewed study by the University of Texas at Arlington that points out that it’s not the hydraulic fracturing process itself that leads to pollution, but rather operational inefficiencies and faulty machinery. The study looked at drilling pads in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas.
The study, which monitored for benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes — volatile organic compounds that are found in petroleum derivatives — suggests that air contamination can be monitored, controlled and reduced, said Kevin Schug, an analytical chemistry professor. High concentrations of the compounds can be carcinogenic and have harmful effects on the central nervous system.
The emissions come from natural gas flaring units, condensation tanks and compressor units, among other things, the study showed. Some of the sites studied were cleaner than others, Schug said.
“If done exactly right, there shouldn’t be a problem ... But they are done on such a massive scale that are going to be some failures in equipment and inefficiencies,” Schug said. “So, if you can be there to monitor for those failures and correct them immediately, obviously the environmental and health impacts would be lessened or removed.”
But Schug cautioned that the UTA study should not be used to contradict the Earthworks report since they were measuring for entirely different compounds. He also said that methane is a problem.
“It is far-fetched that our study had anything to do with contradicting their methane study,” Schug said. “Our study has no bearing on their results.”