What might the oil- and gas-rich Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas look like in 2018?
A newly released but largely unnoticed study commissioned by the state of Texas makes some striking projections:
- The number of wells drilled in the 20,000-square-mile region could quadruple, from about 8,000 today to 32,000.
- Oil production could leap from 363 million barrels per year to as much as 761 million.
- Airborne releases of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) could increase 281 percent during the peak ozone season compared to 2012 emissions. VOCs, commonly found at oil and gas production sites, can cause respiratory and neurological problems. Some, like benzene, can cause cancer.
- Nitrogen oxides — which react with VOCs in sunlight to create ground-level ozone, the main component of smog — could increase 69 percent during the peak ozone season.
These projections are included in a study prepared by scientists with the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG) in San Antonio and paid for by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The study was designed to determine the extent to which oil and gas development in the Eagle Ford region is contributing to rising ozone levels in the San Antonio metropolitan area, which lies north of much of the drilling. San Antonio’s ozone readings have violated federal air quality standards since August 2012, making the city vulnerable to sanctions under the Clean Air Act.
The study’s findings also have implications beyond San Antonio.
In February, the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel produced a series of reports about air quality in the Eagle Ford and found that the Texas regulatory system does more to protect the gas and oil industry than the public. The TCEQ has installed only five permanent air monitors in the region, which is nearly twice the size of Massachusetts, and all of them are on the fringes of the shale play, far from the heavy drilling areas where emissions are highest.
Peter Bella, AACOG's natural resources director, said in a telephone interview that the San Antonio project has two components: a 260-page emission inventory that was posted without fanfare on the AACOG website April 4, and a photochemical model that uses numbers from the inventory and meteorological data to project how the Eagle Ford’s pollutants will influence ozone in San Antonio.
Findings from the photochemical model were given to the TCEQ more than two months ago and the agency is reviewing AACOG's methodology. Bella said he did not know when the results would be released.
The TCEQ did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
The emission inventory catalogs air pollutants from a range of oil and gas operations using three scenarios: low, moderate and aggressive development. (The numbers cited above assume aggressive development.) It was prepared with technical assistance from, and was reviewed by, the TCEQ.
State Rep. Lon Burnam, a Fort Worth Democrat, said the growth predictions are bad news for people who live in the Eagle Ford and surrounding cities, especially San Antonio. Burnam has tried unsuccessfully for years to pass legislation that would protect people from pollution associated with oil and gas production.
“The numbers are mind-boggling,” said Burnam, who recently lost a primary election for a 10th term. “Welcome to an increasingly dirty and unhealthy environment in a state wholly unsympathetic to the health and welfare of its people and wholly beholden to the industry.”
Omar Garcia, president of the South Texas Energy & Economic Roundtable, said Friday morning that he did not have the time to talk about the implications of the report. In previous interviews, Garcia has stressed the economics benefits of the Eagle Ford boom. His organization, which represents major operators in the region, says on its website that in 2012, the boom generated $61 billion in spending and more than 116,000 full-time jobs.
“I would love to engage,” Garcia told a reporter, explaining that he couldn’t spare even a few minutes. “We’ll get you on the next one.”