Backed by results of a new air-quality study along with mounting pressure from local officials and the simmering discontent of local residents, Texas regulators have decided to install an air monitor in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) will install the monitor in Karnes County, the epicenter of one of the fastest-growing drilling regions in the nation. More than 10,000 oil and gas wells have been sunk since 2008, and residents have complained of breathing difficulties and other health problems.
In February, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel showed that the TCEQ knows almost nothing about air quality in the area. The series, “Big Oil, Bad Air,” found that from September 1, 2009, through August 31, 2013, there was a 100-percent increase statewide in unplanned, toxic air releases associated with oil and gas production and that companies were rarely fined, even when inspections revealed they were operating equipment improperly.
Although the TCEQ conducts sporadic mobile monitoring and operates five permanent monitors at the edges of the 20,000-square mile Eagle Ford, little monitoring has been conducted in areas with the heaviest drilling activity.
State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Democrat whose district includes Karnes County, said data from the new monitor will help the TCEQ "be better informed. We need to know what is happening before there are any problems.
"We are reaping the benefits of the Eagle Ford, but at the same time we have to protect the people and the environment," Zaffirini said. "The two should go hand in hand."
Zaffirini said TCEQ officials raised the issue of additional air monitoring in the county with her in February. She said the TCEQ then conducted mobile monitoring in Karnes County in April and May.
The senator said TCEQ officials told her that the data didn't show anything of concern. Because of all the production activity in the county, however, it was decided that installing a permanent monitor would be prudent.
The device is expected in place by the end of October, Zaffirini said. One of the locations being considered is the grounds of the Karnes County courthouse complex in Karnes City.
John Bosch, a retired air monitoring expert with more than 30 years' experience at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said the new monitor is "a very general thing that's intended to measure the general exposure of people in the area.
“It's not going to solve any of the … immediate, localized health problems caused by major leaks of toxic gases from emitting sources [in the] petroleum industry," he said.
TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson said the monitor will take continuous measurements of 46 volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These chemicals are released during all stages of oil and gas operations; some, like benzene, can cause cancer after sustained exposure.
The monitor will cost about $12,000 to build and $135,000 per year to operate, Clawson said in an email.
Clawson cited a mobile monitoring study by University of Texas at Austin scientist David Sullivan as a factor in the agency's decision to place the monitor in Karnes County.
Sullivan's study, conducted over 12 days in May and June, was not intended to focus on local air quality within the county. Instead, he collected data on the fringes of the Eagle Ford — an area almost twice as large as Massachusetts — to determine whether oil field emissions were migrating upwind or downwind of the shale play.