December 11, 2012

In Focus: Oil, gas, and managing the damages

There are ways to control waste and pollution, but producers and regulators too often fall behind.

By KEVIN BEGOS and SETH BORENSTEIN The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

A combine cutting durum wheat near an oil well in Tioga, N.D. demonstrates the intersection of energy production and the environment. Critics of booming gas and oil production are concerned about the effects that pollution has on climate change generally, but also on the possible health consequences from breathing smog, soot and other pollutants.

2008 Associated Press File Photo

NOAA scientists also say natural gas production has contributed to unusual wintertime smog in the West, particularly in regions surrounded by mountains, and especially in snowy areas.

Ozone, the main component in smog, typically forms when sunlight "cooks" a low-lying stew of chemicals such as benzene and engine exhaust. Normally, the process doesn't happen in cold weather.

But NOAA researchers found that when there's heavy snowfall, the sun passes through the stew, then bounces off the snow and heats it again on the way back up. In some cases, smog in remote areas has spiked to levels higher than those in New York or Los Angeles.

In open regions more exposed to wind, the ozone vanishes, sometimes within hours or a day. But in Utah basins it can linger for weeks, Schnell said.

Evidence that air pollution from gas drilling can be managed -- but that more work may still need to be done -- comes from north Texas, where the shale gas boom began around Fort Worth about 10 years ago.

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.

NOT BEING VIGILANT

"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 -- 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.

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 argue 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.

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.

"One has to demonstrate that it is solved, and monitored," he said.

 

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)