Hurricane Harvey brought record rainfall and flooding to the Houston-Galveston region. The impacts of the storm and ensuing flooding included loss of lives, homes and livelihoods. In response, researchers from the region with expertise in hydrology, climate science, engineering, coastal resiliency, energy, community development and urban planning came together to strategize on solutions.
HARC’s involvement with the expanding issue of air emissions from oil and gas exploration and production activities didn’t start with the introduction last year of the Powered by Natural Gas initiative of the Environmentally Friendly Drilling Program.
In 2012, HARC’s program director for air quality science, Eduardo (Jay) Olaguer shone a bright – and, as it turned out, controversial – spotlight on the ramifications of stepped-up drilling in shale formations with a peer-reviewed paper for the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association.
In it, Olaguer wrote that his modeling simulations of ozone formation close to a hypothetical natural gas processing facility showed “significant” increases in ozone, a lung-damaging gas that is created when pollutants from such facilities and many other sources combine in sunlight:
“Major metropolitan areas in or near shale formations will be hard pressed to demonstrate future attainment of the federal ozone standard, unless significant controls are placed on emissions from increased oil and gas exploration and production,” he wrote, sparking criticism by industry officials that he proceeded to rebut.
The effects of emissions from exploration and drilling activities on air quality have continued to inspire public concern and debate, news coverage, scientific research, and attention from government and industry officials.
San Antonio, a booming metropolitan area near a booming oil and gas region, is a case in point, as the San Antonio Express-News reported on April 12:
An environmental study shows emissions of compounds that can create ozone pollution will keep increasing in the Eagle Ford Shale zone as oil and gas drilling steps up over the next several years.
The pollution ultimately could affect air quality — albeit slightly overall — in the San Antonio area, which is teetering on the edge of non-attainment for federal clean air standards for ozone.
The Alamo Area Council of Governments [AACOG], which tracks air pollution in the area, conducted the study to determine the impact of the oil boom south of the city.
The report doesn't explicitly say the shale play is increasing pollution in San Antonio, but a separate air modeling study yet to be published indicates ozone pollution could tick up.
The newspaper went on to report that the AACOG report, released earlier in April, said that daily emissions from Eagle Ford production activities during the ozone-conducive months of April to October had increased from 66 to 111 tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and from 101 to 229 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOCs).
Projected releases of NOx will jump to 146 tons and VOCs to 188 tons in ozone season, when sunny conditions make ozone formation more likely, “depending on how many wells are drilled,” the newspaper added
Besides contributing to ozone formation in atmospheric reactions, VOCs and NOx are associated with various adverse health impacts on their own. VOCs, for example, comprise a broad group of many gaseous pollutants, some of which are identified as toxic and some of which are linked to cancer, neurological damage and other health problems.
Public Radio International’s Living on Earth program reported in February that Colorado was taking regulatory action against emissions from oil and gas drilling:
While Texas may be slow to act, Colorado recently became the first state to respond to the fracking [hydraulic fracturing] boom with new regulations on emissions from oil and gas production. The new rules go after methane, a potent greenhouse gas as well as volatile organic compounds which pose health risks.
Preceding Colorado’s action, some energy industry companies, acknowledging environmental concerns surrounding oil and natural gas activities, had already begun promoting their attention to technologies aimed at reducing emissions through use of natural gas in fracturing and production equipment.
In January 2013, for instance, Houston-based Apache Corp. announced that it had “partnered with Halliburton and Schlumberger to find ways to use natural gas to power hydraulic fracturing, which is one of the most energy-intensive processes employed by the industry.” The Apache release quoted a company official saying the use of natural gas would reduce the amount of oil imported to power fracturing equipment and “also will help keep our air clean.”
An official of Houston-based Baker Hughes, Inc., writing in a July 2013 article in American Oil & Gas Reporter, said using natural gas along with diesel in bi-fuel equipment would produce “significant” environmental benefits. He cited reduced emissions of air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter as well as carbon dioxide, the major greenhouse gas blamed by climate scientists for global warming.