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Air pollution regulation in Texas still a cloudy issue

By Marissa Hall | Shale Plays Media

Amidst continued debate regarding the effect of fracking and drilling in oil and gas industry, the EPA posted an updated list of manufacturer-tested combustion control devices on May 15. This list is aimed at providing information into the industry that will help oil and gas companies minimize harmful air pollution. Air pollution is still a cloudy topic, especially in industry-heavy Texas.

A Karnes County couple are being forced to leave their home of 23 years due to air pollution from fracking. Within three miles of the Buehring residence are a minimum of 57 oil and gas wells and nine processing plants. Lynn and Shelby Buehring made the decision to leave when Lynn’s health afforded no other option. At just 58, the air pollution is causing her health to deteriorate quickly, a process that began in late 2011. The couple have been unable to obtain help from state regulators. Although Lynn and Shelby have no choice but to leave their home, Lynn says she is “not anti-drilling at all.” She only remonstrates that fracking companies “need to do it in a responsible way.”

Since 2008 over 7000 oil and gas wells have been drilled into Eagle Ford shale, and another 5000 are proposed for the future. Despite continued concerns of air pollution due to fracking, TCEQ asserts that point source emissions in Texas have decreased since 2009. Statistics for 2013 and 2014 have not yet been made available.


Annual Inventory Trends
Pollutant (tpy) 2009 2010 2011 2012
VOC 107,000 102,000 103,000 101,000
NOx 334,000 327,000 323,000 298,000
SO2 550,000 552,000 513,000 422,000
CO 337,000 305,000 310,000 301,000
PM10 54,000 52,000 53,000 52,000
Total 1,382,000 1,338,000 1,302,000 1,174,000

*typ = tons per year, VOC = volatile organic compounds, NOx = nitrogen oxides, SO3 = sulfur dioxide, CO = carbon monoxide, PM1- = particulate matter less than ten microns in diameter

Related: Letter: Even Texas does it better than ND

One major problem facing minimization of air pollution in the oil and gas industry in Texas is the length of time it takes to actually dole out consequences for noncompliant companies, or even to register resident complaints. On Wednesday, May 14, ExxonMobil and Invista were finally fined for violations of air pollution regulations in 2012. ExxonMobil was fined $87,500 by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) for the release of 30,405.55 pounds of VOC and 33.96 pounds of sulfur dioxide on October 12, 2012. Modification and replacement of the necessary equipment following the incident wasn’t performed until February of 2013.

Invista in turn was fined $13,126 for two incidents of hydrogen cyanide pollution: 14 pounds on October 10, 2012 and 20 pounds on December 1, 2012. The December incident also resulted in the leakage of 350 pounds of carbon monoxide. The flaw in procedure that allowed the leaks was not rectified until March 2013.

Lynn Buehring feels that the actions TCEQ take are not enough, and that “they don’t care,” at least not enough to take immediate action. The Buehring couple are not the only Eagle Ford residents to register complaints about the air pollution and its regulation. Some even go so far as to allege that the Texas government is both funded and manipulated by the oil industry. With four shale plays operating, at least in part, within its borders, oil and gas companies dominate Texas industry.

Because there are no scientific studies as of yet to prove that the problems experienced by people like Lynn Buehring are caused by the air pollution from the oil and gas industry, it would seem TCEQ and similar institutions are reluctant or unwilling to take action in their favor.

Despite ongoing efforts from EPA to minimize and control the air pollution nationwide, TCEQ largely ignores the complaints from Texas residents. However, hope remains for the future. In February, Colorado fully adopted EPA’s Standards of Performance for Crude Oil and Natural Gas Production. ON May 13, a coalition of 64 organizations filed a petition with the EPA, pushing for limits on pollution in the immediate future. While pollution has been an ongoing issue since the beginning of the oil boom, hopefully this points to further improvements on air pollution regulation in the oil and gas industry.

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