November 17, 2017

As Urban Gas Drilling Expands, So Do Health Concerns

Asher Price, American Statesman Staff

Texas Environmental Agency Accused of Lax Monitoring, Lack of Transparency

On a carved-out hillside beside Tandy Hills , one of the last undisturbed prairies in eastern Fort Worth, sits a gas drilling site belonging to Chesapeake Energy. Same goes for the art deco Texas & Pacific Warehouse on the south edge of downtown, where a fenced-off lot is slated for drilling.

So far, there is no industrial operation next to the Kimbell , the city’s world-famous art museum, or the Stockyards , which still host rodeos. But gas companies have drilled more than 1,000 wells inside the city limits in recent years, leading some environmentalists to rechristen Cowtown as Gasland.

Fort Worth is the sweet spot in the 5,000-square-mile Barnett Shale formation, a millennia-old natural gas field. Changes in drilling technology and a spike in the price of natural gas drove energy companies to begin drilling in town in the late 1990s.

But that drilling now faces stiff pushback. After years of playing down risks, the state environmental agency, prompted by news media and a state senator, has recently acknowledged air quality problems. And the death of a utility worker this month in Cleburne, 30 miles south of Fort Worth (a line carrying Barnett Shale gas exploded after workers accidentally hit it), heightened anxieties. The issue has divided the city as it grapples with allowing drillers to put money in residents’ pockets on the one hand and protecting public health and safety on the other.

Experts estimate that the Barnett Shale, 7,000 feet below ground, holds 49 trillion cubic feet of gas; total U.S. consumption of gas every year, largely to heat homes, amounts to 27 trillion cubic feet. About 4.8 billion cubic feet of gas per day is being pumped, and with the field now a proven one, the success that risk-taking independents like Chesapeake and Devon Energy have had in producing from the Barnett Shale is attracting the interest of the majors, like Exxon.

The drilling has enriched some of the citizens of Fort Worth. A 2007 study by the Perryman Group , paid for by the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, which counts gas companies among its members, found that Barnett Shale operations contribute $5.2 billion annually to the region and have added 55,385 permanent jobs .

More recently, lower natural gas prices have led to a downturn in how much Fort Worth residents can expect for access to their mineral rights. The homeowner of a typical quarter-acre residential lot might get $500 for access to his or her mineral rights, plus $50 a month in royalties, said Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, whose membership includes leading gas drilling and services companies.

The city, led by Mayor Mike Moncrief, has largely supported drilling, though it passed, and later expanded, an ordinance setting rules for drilling, including noise limits and setbacks from property lines. Moncrief, a former state senator, earned at least $633,000 from leases and royalties related to the oil and gas business in 2007, according to financial disclosure forms he filed, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram has reported. Moncrief told the paper that none of his gas deals is in the Barnett Shale, except for leases on his family ranch in Parker County.

But questions about air quality were raised in Fort Worth after officials in the nearby town of DISH, also above the Barnett Shale, blamed natural gas drilling for health issues. (Formerly known as Clark, the town of DISH renamed itself in 2005 in exchange for 10 years of free basic television service and DVRs from the Dish Network.)

After DISH’s Town Council paid for its own air quality tests, which found high levels of 15 chemicals, officials from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said they would take a closer look.

Now the agency has had to play catch-up in Fort Worth. Since the beginning of the year, it has hired additional inspectors and doubled the number of permanent air quality monitoring stations in the area.

It has also engaged in crisis management after the transparency of its test results was called into question.

At a January meeting, an agency official declared, “The air is safe,” the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. But an internal audit at the agency found that samples were not tested with proper equipment. A retest found that three samples were above certain limits for benzene; one sample, at a country club in town, was at levels high enough to cause nausea and headaches in some people.

A memo in late May from agency toxicologist Shannon Ethridge found that “short-term exposure to these concentrations would not be expected to cause adverse health effects.”

She recommended continued monitoring, noting that benzene emissions could “contribute to long-term (i.e. lifetime) cumulative exposure.”

At several stages, the agency has been prompted to release information only after public information requests by state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, or reports by the media.

In a statement, the agency said it “remains committed to monitoring air quality in the Barnett Shale area and to respond to citizen concerns, and to reduce overall emissions and improve air quality.”

The results “do not indicate an immediate health concern,” John Sadlier, deputy director in charge of compliance and enforcement at the agency, wrote in a June 1 letter to Fort Worth officials.

But Davis said the question of whether air emissions associated with the drilling pose serious health risks is an open one.

“We don’t have information to answer that,” she said. “It is apparent that the TCEQ will continue to hide data crucial to the public’s health.”

More blunt is activist Don Young, a 57-year-old stained-glass artist who lives near the Tandy Hills Natural Area and manages the website fwcando.org, which rails against the drilling.

The environmental commission “has been asleep at the switch,” Young said.

In an interview at its headquarters in North Austin, Sadlier said the agency has diligently collected air quality samples and posted results from its permanent testing stations. He said he made the mistake of not apprising Fort Worth officials of the retest, but he said that he had pushed for it and that public health was never in jeopardy.

The highest result from 20 air quality samples at Fort Worth gas well sites or their fence lines since December was 6.3 parts per billion for benzene — far below the 180 parts per billion value for short-term exposure that could lead to dizziness or nausea, yet above a long-term value of 1.4 parts per billion. But to suffer the effects from the long-term value, one must be exposed to the benzene 24 hours a day for 70 years, and the permanent monitors haven’t registered those amounts, Sadlier said.

He said Texans are exposed to much higher benzene concentrations — about 11,000 parts per billion — when filling their cars at the gas station.

“There is no public health issue” in Fort Worth, he said.

Ireland, whose nonprofit promotes drilling, said there is “a lot of misinformation floating around that has raised the level of concern, and it’s not been justified by the data that’s been collected.”

The Legislature could take up proposals to improve the venting of gases, tighten practices for disposing of water associated with the drilling and increase permitting fees and penalties.

“I want to support the oil and gas industry; it’s important to our economy and important to people receiving bonus and royalty checks from oil and gas,” Davis said. “But there’s a growing concern from individuals, especially those in densely populated ones, about whether (the drilling) is done safely.”

State Rep. Jim Keffer , R-Eastland , who heads the House Energy Resources Committee, said he has been meeting with drilling companies to urge them to be more transparent about their work in cities.

“They have to give more forethought about how people are handled,” he said. “This isn’t West Texas, where you just make sure you close the gate and that cattle don’t get out.”

He wasn’t sure at this point what steps, if any, the Legislature would take in 2011 to address safety or health.

“Safety is the first issue,” he said. “On the other side of the coin is the economics. We want the oil and gas industry to continue in Texas; it’s the linchpin of our economy.”

American Statesman