Mike Honeycutt, director of toxicology for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, said that in the early years of the boom, people complained about excessive pollution. Regulators started using special hand-held cameras to pinpoint pollution sources and found some sites with high levels of benzene and other volatile organic compounds.
“It was a maintenance issue. They were in such a hurry, and they were drilling so fast, they were not being as vigilant as they should have been,” Honeycutt said. “So we passed new rules that made them take more notice.”
Honeycutt said the cameras, which cost about $100,000 each, have revolutionized the way inspectors monitor sites. Texas has also installed nine 24-hour air monitoring stations in the drilling region around Fort Worth, and more are on the way. Now, he said, even as drilling has increased, summer ozone levels have declined.
In 1997 there were only a few hundred shale gas wells in the Fort Worth area and the summertime ozone level hit 104 parts per billion, far above the national standard then of 85. By 2012 the number of wells had risen to about 16,000, but preliminary results show the ozone level was 87 last summer.
There’s still room for improvement, Honeycutt said, but the trend is clear, since the monitoring is no longer showing worrisome levels of benzene, either.
The Environmental Protection Agency isn’t completely convinced. This year the federal agency cited Wise County in north Texas, a heavy gas drilling area, for violating ozone standards. Industry groups and the state have argued that the finding was based on faulty science.
So far, NOAA scientists say they haven’t found signs that gas or oil drilling is contributing to a global rise in methane.
“Not the mid-latitudes where the drilling is being done, which is interesting,” said James Butler, head of global monitoring for NOAA.
The EPA has passed new rules on oil and gas emissions that are scheduled to go into effect in 2015, and in 2012 it reached legal settlements that will require companies to spend more than $14 million on pollution controls in Utah and Wyoming. Colorado, Texas and other states have passed more stringent rules, too.
Carlton Carroll, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, a lobbying group for the oil and gas industry, pointed out that many companies started developing the equipment to limit methane and other pollution before the EPA rule.
“API is not opposed to controls on oil and gas operations so long as the controls are cost-effective, allow sufficient lead time and can be implemented safely,” Carroll said in an email, adding that the industry has requested some technical clarifications to the rule and is working with EPA on those.
Prasad Kasibhatla, a professor of environmental chemistry at Duke University, said that controlling gas drilling pollution is “technically solvable” but requires close attention by regulators.<< previous 1 2 3