Studies: Links Between Fracking and Smog Pollution Stronger Than State Claims

by Published on
Texas Barnett Shale gas drilling rig near Alvarado, Texas
Barnett Shale rig

New research suggests that pollution from fracking contributes a much larger share of Dallas-Fort Worth’s smog problem than state officials have said. The study, conducted by Mahdi Ahmadi, a graduate student at the University of North Texas, was presented at a clean-air meeting this morning in Arlington. The Observer received a copy of the presentation.

Ahmadi analyzed data from 16 air-quality monitors in the Metroplex going back to 1997, looking for a connection between oil and gas production and ozone. Seven of the sites were east of Denton, outside of the Barnett Shale, and nine were located in the shale area, close to oil and gas activity.

Ahmadi’s twist is that he adjusted for meteorological conditions, including air temperature, wind speed and sunlight—key ingredients in ozone formation. Backing natural factors out of the data allowed Ahmadi to better pinpoint human factors, including the link between fracking and ozone formation.

He found that while smog levels have dropped overall since the late 1990s, ozone levels in fracking areas have been increasing steadily and rising at a much higher rate than in areas without oil and gas activity.

“This is a small but important victory for real science in this process, as opposed to the completely politicized approach by TCEQ to prevent the imposition of new controls of any kind,” said Jim Schermbeck, director of North Texas clean-air group Downwinders at Risk.

Since 2008, meteorologically-adjusted ozone in the fracking region has increased 12 percent while in the non-fracking region ozone rose just 4 percent.

UNT ozone study

UNT air quality study winter monthsThe trend during the winter was “even more striking,” said Dr. Kuruvilla John, the UNT engineering professor who oversaw the study. During winter months, the fracking region saw a 21-percent increase in ozone, while in the non-fracking area it went up 5 percent.

That’s significant because ozone season has traditionally been confined to the summer months. Moreover, EPA’s smog standards have become increasingly stringent over time, as scientists find more evidence for health problems at lower levels. If the EPA were to lower the ozone standard to 60 or 65 parts per billion—it currently sits at 75 ppb—the Dallas-Fort Worth region could find itself out of compliance even during winter months.

Regardless, Ahmadi’s research directly challenges the message from Gov. Rick Perry and Texas’ top environmental officials, who routinely dismiss links between smog, and oil and gas activity. On its website, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality claims that because the wind “blows emissions from the Barnett Shale away from the DFW area,” those emissions from fracking are “not expected to significantly affect ozone in the DFW area.”

The new UNT research isn’t the only recent study suggesting that the state’s scientific understanding of ozone is shaky. A study conducted for the Alamo Area Council of Governments, released earlier this month, found that fracking activity in South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale would drive large increases in the two main ozone ingredients and imperil San Antonio’s compliance with federal smog rules.

Apparently, the group’s public probing of the fracking-smog links didn’t sit too well with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The Austin American-Statesman reported on Monday:

“The Texas environmental agency has frozen funding for a San Antonio area governmental coalition’s air quality improvement work after an official there publicly shared modeling results that suggested fracking contributed pollution to the city.

“Last summer the Alamo Area Council of Governments made public a report that found that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Eagle Ford shale field endangers air quality in the San Antonio area – and, to a milder extent, the Austin area.

“The Alamo group, composed of officials representing local governments over a 12-county area, did not share the report’s data beforehand with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which had paid for its collection.

“So when it came time last fall to dole out money to councils of government from across the state – including the council from the Austin area – all but the Alamo area council were rewarded with a roughly 30 percent uptick in Legislature-appropriated money to carry out air quality monitoring and planning work.”

 

Forrest Wilder, a native of Wimberley, Texas, is associate editor of the Observer. Forrest specializes in environmental reporting and runs the “Forrest for the Trees” blog. Forrest has appeared on Democracy Now!, The Rachel Maddow Show and numerous NPR stations. His work has been mentioned by The New York Times, the Washington Post, the New Yorker, Time magazine and many other state and national publications. Other than filing voluminous open records requests, Forrest enjoys fishing, kayaking, gardening and beer-league softball. He holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin.

  • A. Zigon

    We need to find a way to stop all this unregulated, freewheeling full steam ahead industry.
    Think about it– we subsidize them with our taxes so they can take out land, ruin our roads extract the resources they want, use all the water they want and pollute it to make enormous profit and then not pay taxes themselves. I want a deal like that.

    • Guest

      No you don’t.

  • schafersman

    The UNT study and other relevant documents about the Dallas-Fort Worth smog problem can be downloaded here: http://www.nctcog.org/trans/committees/aqtc/041714/Agenda.pdf

    Mahdi Ahmadi’s scientific study is excellent and reliably documents the negative effects of fracking on ambient air quality. For years, due to EPA pressure on Texas to monitor air pollutants and reduce photochemical smog–the type that produces ozone, the easiest single measure of such air pollution–and take steps to reduce the emission of its components as required by federal clean air laws, the air in our giant cities has become much cleaner. This study and the other one by the Alamo Area Council of Governments have documented the fact that the relatively new production method of hydraulically fracturing shales and similar fine-grained rocks on an extremely-close well-spacing grid have introduced a new way for the photochemical smog precursors to get into the atmosphere. Since the Barnett Shale field and the Eagle Ford Shale field are both near large urban areas, this has had a significant effect on their clean air attainment requirements. The only way for Fort Worth-Dallas and San Antonio to now meet federal clean are requirements is for Texas to regulate fracking. If Texas continues to ignore the problem, the EPA may have to act and this will result in the usual heated controversy by an industry, and the politicians that shill for it, that doesn’t want the federal government to tell it to stop dirtying the air (i.e. to be forced to choose between clean air for Texas citizens or higher profits).

    TCEQ, as expected of a captured agency (a captured agency is one that is under political control and doesn’t follow standard scientific and engineering principles and data to make regulatory decisions; rather, it makes decisions from political imperatives), has denied the problem exists. Readers may wonder why the data used in the UNT study came from TCEQ monitors if TCEQ ignores or dismisses the data. The explanation is that the TCEQ monitoring program is funded and ultimately controlled by the EPA; TCEQ only administers it on behalf of the EPA as it is required to do by federal laws. It is highly doubtful that Texas would have such a high-quality air monitoring network without federal EPA mandates. So we can thank the EPA, not the TCEQ, for our knowledge of air pollution in Texas.

    Forrest Wilder should be congratulated for continuing to keep his eye on the TCEQ and its political activities on behalf of the governor’s friends that result in Texas having a lower environmental quality rather than the higher quality that we might expect from this agency.

  • Siggy

    Lets go to Mexico City to get some fresh air…..ha ha
    Texas obviously doesn’t care and is a Rick Perry wasteland….if you are the oil rich you just move away from the foul air….So sad….there are actually Texans who settled here in the past for the open spaces and fresh air…Just shows you how quickly greed and fascist politics can destroy our state and our country!!