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Data Show Texas Ozone Levels Are Not Driven by Fracking

Steve Everley's picture
Energy In Depth
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  • Feb 7, 2015 9:00 pm GMT

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Texas Barnett and Smog Chart

The rapidly-growing Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) metropolitan area in North Texas has struggled for years to reach attainment with federal clean air requirements for ozone, a problem that many environmental activists have blamed on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”). But a closer review of publicly available data suggests there is no credible link between ozone nonattainment and development of the Barnett Shale, over which much of the Metroplex sits.

Ground-level ozone, also known as smog, is formed when volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) interact with sunlight. An array of industrial activities emit NOx and VOCs, although many regulators have identified tailpipe emissions from cars and trucks as the main cause of smog.

Critics of fracking have alleged for years that oil and natural gas activities emit more ozone precursors than all of the cars and trucks on the road in DFW. Downwinders at Risk, a local environmental group, told Fort Worth Weekly in 2011 that “the gas industry now emits more smog-forming volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, than all the cars and trucks in D/FW combined.” As part of its “Don’t Frack with NY” advocacy campaign, the environmental group Riverkeeper wrote in 2012 that Barnett Shale activities “emit more smog-causing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) than all cars, trucks, buses, and other mobile sources in the area combined.” The claim was also reprinted in the New York Times in 2011 with little scrutiny.

The talking point traces its origin to a 2009 study authored by Al Armendariz, then a professor at Southern Methodist University, who hypothesized that “the oil and gas sector likely has greater [smog-forming] emissions than motor vehicles” in the five Metroplex counties with “significant oil and gas production.” Armendariz later became the head of EPA’s Region 6 office in Dallas, although he was forced to resign after a video surfaced of him explaining his strategy to use his EPA authority to “crucify” the energy industry. He now works for the anti-drilling Sierra Club.

Nonetheless, data from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) – which operates the most comprehensive air monitoring network in the area – show that vehicular emissions actually far exceed those emanating from Barnett Shale activities.

Shortly after the Armendariz study was released, TCEQ reviewed its findings, concluding that they were “based on incomparable data and exaggerate the relative significance of the emissions from the Barnett Shale with regard to ozone formation in the Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) ozone nonattainment area.” TCEQ added that the study “over-simplifies the chemistry that underlies ozone formation in the DFW area,” because it ascribed equal weight to NOx and VOCs in the formation of smog. As TCEQ observed, “the response to NOx reductions is much stronger than the response to VOC emissions,” and “for NOx emissions, on-road mobile sources are the largest single category.”


SOURCE: TCEQ and the North Central Texas Council of Governments, 2012

A few years later, TCEQ took another look at emissions in the Barnett Shale region, and once again concluded that ozone precursors from mobile sources exceeded those from oil and natural gas production activities. According to TCEQ, “The estimated mobile source NOx emissions are approximately 15 times higher than the oil and gas NOx emission.” TCEQ further noted that VOC emissions from oil and gas were “half of the mobile source VOC emissions.”



On TCEQ’s “Ozone History” page for the Dallas-Fort Worth region, TCEQ notes that the “majority of NOx emissions in the DFW area come from on-road mobile sources (cars and trucks) and non-road mobile sources (such as construction equipment, aircraft, and locomotives)” — not oil and natural gas production.

In short, the paper’s conclusion that “the oil and gas sector likely has greater emissions than motor vehicles” was not only incorrect, but also rested on false assumptions about how ozone actually forms. That may also explain how ozone in the Dallas-Fort Worth region could decline as Barnett Shale production grew.

South Texas Smog

Critics have similarly linked ozone levels in San Antonio to the booming Eagle Ford Shale, located about 50 miles south of the city. Like the Metroplex, San Antonio has experienced rapid growth in recent years. In just a two year span, from 2010 to 2012, more than 90,000 people moved to the south Texas metropolis, helping to make it the fourth-fastest growing major city nationwide. Experts say the rapid growth means the physical size of San Antonio could double by 2040.

Increased population means additional cars and trucks on the road, along with other economic development to support new jobs. These activities all contribute to ozone formation, but environmentalists and other activist groups have focused blame on emissions from the Eagle Ford, where daily oil production has grown by over 6,000 percent since just 2010, according to data from the Texas Railroad Commission.

For example, Downwinders at Risk wrote last year that San Antonio’s public officials “deny the link between the Eagle Ford and smog in their city.”  InsideClimate News has claimed that ozone levels “began rising in 2007, with the steepest increase seen around 2011, just as the Eagle Ford boom exploded.” ICN also alleges that the Eagle Ford is an “important factor” in the region’s ozone (notably, the natural resources director for the Alamo Area Council of Governments said ICN’s claim was based on preliminary data that are “really not worth using”). In 2013, a report by Earthworks — which recently pledged a “war on fracking” —  alleged that oil and natural gas companies operating in the Eagle Ford “are allowed to release hundreds of tons of air pollutants on an annual basis,” including ozone precursors such as VOCs and NOx. A representative from the Environmental Defense Fund told the Texas Tribune: “We know that emissions from oil and gas drilling operations are contributing to increases in ozone concentrations,” including in San Antonio.

But the most comprehensive data set on regional emissions suggests that environmental groups are overstating the degree to which Eagle Ford operations contribute to San Antonio’s ozone problem.

According to a report from the Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG), VOC emissions from cars and trucks in the San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area were more than ten times what emanated from Eagle Ford activities in 2012. That same year, automobiles emitted approximately 20 times more NOx than Eagle Ford operations. By 2018, emissions from automobiles are projected to decline significantly, but VOCs and NOx from the Eagle Ford will only account for about three percent of the region’s total emissions.

As the San Antonio Express-News reported in 2013, drilling-related emissions are largely in rural counties, and “the total air pollution produced in Bexar County alone could easily match” what’s emitted from the Eagle Ford, according to AACOG.

Activists Tell EPA to Crackdown

Last week, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency held two public hearings on its proposal to reduce the National Ambient Air Quality Standard (NAAQS) for ozone from 75 parts per billion (ppb) to between 65 and 70 ppb. Environmental groups flooded the hearings with individuals calling for a stricter standard — 60 ppb — than what even the EPA claims would be cost-effective. An Energy In Depth analysis found that EPA inflated the net benefits of its proposed ozone rule by as much as 3,100 percent over what the Agency had determined for the same standard just three years earlier.

Many of the environmentalists testified that oil and natural gas production is a major contributor to smog in Texas. Zac Trahan, program director at Texas Campaign for the Environment, blamed “the fracking boom” for ozone nonattainment in Dallas-Fort Worth. Luke Metzger with Environment Texas told EPA that oil and natural gas production is a “major source of air pollution in Texas,” adding that drilling activity in the Eagle Ford is “putting San Antonio at risk of nonattainment.”

Based upon the data, however, the environmentalists’ claim that “fracking” is pushing major Texas cities into nonattainment is without merit.

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Steve K9's picture
Steve K9 on Feb 7, 2015

Have no fear, the Saudi’s have decided to crush the frackers.  In a year there won’t be any rigs drilling and production will start a precipitous decline.

Not good news if you work in the oil patch though.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 7, 2015

Steve, data shows whatever you interpret it to show, and if you’re referencing the Texas Environmental Quality Commission you’re relying on the interpretation of Rick Perry’s hand-picked climate change denier:

Who Did Rick Perry Pick as his Top Environmental Cop?

When you rely on data from the Alamo Area Council of Governments and the Texas Railroad Commission, you’re depending on two organizations with a clear pro-business conflict to interest – one shared by your organization, the Independent Petroleum Association of America:

Energy In Depth (EID) is…focused on getting the facts out about the promise and potential of responsibly developing America’s onshore energy resource base – especially abundant sources of oil and natural gas from shale and other “tight” formations across the country.

Without peer-review nor impartial analysis, what would lead a critical reader to consider your article something other than petroleum industry public relations?

Steve Everley's picture
Steve Everley on Feb 7, 2015

Hi Bob, thanks for reading. You can tell it’s not just “public relations” because it’s data that reflect reality. It’s not as if the data actually show oil and gas production is a major contributor to ozone in DFW and San Antonio. The crux of your argument is a conspiracy: we can’t trust the data because you don’t like the sources of the data. You have nothing to substantiate your critique; it is merely an attempt to sow doubt about a conclusion that you dislike. 

As as for my affiliation with Energy In Depth, congratulations. You successfully repeated what is listed on my profile, and for which no attempt has been made on my part to conceal. Once again, you are trying to divert from the facts — which we have established you don’t like. That’s unfortunate, but it is obviously your right.

If you would care to respond to the substance of the post, and the data contained therein, then I would be happy to review whatever you have to say. But please, let’s focus on the facts, not scripted talking points.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 8, 2015

Steve, you’re mischaracterizing my comment. I don’t dislike the conclusion per se – it could very well be a valid one, and I don’t like or dislike the sources, nor suggest any conspiracy. What I’m pointing out is the financial incentive of every one of your sources which conflicts with an honest assessment of the facts (if a buyer asks a car dealer whether the price he’s asking is a fair one, the answer will not offer most people any measureable level of assurance).

I make no attempt to justify Al Armendariz’s “crucify” comment or the reprehensible tactics he used to attempt to force Region 6 producers into compliance. But that’s a distraction, because his comment has nothing to do with the validity of the conclusions in his 2009 paper, and there is no evidence that he was compensated in any way to come to those conclusions.

In rebuttal you offer evidence provided by TCEQ, whose chariman once said that the science of climate change remains “unclear” (unfortunately he’s still employed). Its stated mission is “to protect our state’s human and natural resources consistent with sustainable economic development” – a conflict in itself, and a tipoff any of its “science” should be taken with a big grain of salt.

Does EnergyInDepth share the opinion that the science of climate change is unsettled, and that overwhelming scientific consensus is not sufficient to “settle” a matter?

Steve Everley's picture
Steve Everley on Feb 8, 2015

Leland, thanks for your comment. The focus of my post was on Texas specifically. In different parts of the country, there are differing interpretations on what the key contributor is to ozone formation. In Utah, for example, the fact that high ozone levels correlate more closely with snowfall than with oil or gas production suggests weather plays a major role. Is that true for Texas? I’m not sure, but we do know that the best available data suggest oil and gas production activities are not significant contributors of NOx or VOCs, at least when compared to other, much larger sources.

It may be worth looking at the key contributing factors in other parts of the country, as other scientists have done (which you pointed out), but that wasn’t the focus of this post.

Steve Everley's picture
Steve Everley on Feb 8, 2015

Bob, you’re still attacking the source instead of what the data actually show. By suggesting that the sources are somehow “captured” by industry, you’re also alleging that they’re fudging the data. TCEQ operates the most extensive air monitoring network in the Barnett Shale, and the agency has collected millions of data points in the Eagle Ford. In the latter case, there have been calls for TCEQ to install additional monitors to get a better handle on the data, and I know they have announced at least one more monitor will be constructed or is being constructed. But discussions about the limitations of the data are a different discussion than the validity of the data presented. The implication of your comment is that TCEQ and AACOG are concealing data that are not favorable to industry — without providing even a shred of evidence for such a coverup, which would indeed be a major conspiracy.

It’s also interesting that you consider Armendariz’s hostility to industry to be a “distraction,” but your self-determined “business-friendly” description of TCEQ and AACOG make their data fatally flawed. In Armendariz’s case, his affiliation is useful because it explains why such extensive monitoring has disproved his theory. Perhaps his conclusion was driven by an animus toward industry, which we can agree is not scientific. Or perhaps he made an honest mistake. In any case, it’s far more relevant to discuss Armendariz’s intentions to “crucify” the industry than it is to make unfounded assumptions about the quality of data that anyone can access. The latter is nothing more than a blind attempt to distract or sow doubt — a baseless accusation intended to force others into answering questions, instead of focusing on the facts.

As for your question about climate change, that has as much to do with this post as does the veracity of veterinary science. Once again, that is an attempt to divert from the focus of this post (ozone levels and what contributes to it) and instead engage on a completely separate topic (climate change). That’s a tactic typically used by individuals who cannot debate the merits of the subject at hand, so they try to change the subject.

But for the sake of argument: I accept climate science the same way that I accept evolution or math. Had you taken some time to visit the Energy In Depth blog — — and searched for climate-related subjects, you would see that we have covered the issue extensively. In the context of this particular discussion, it’s worth noting that shale gas from formations such as the Barnett has done more to reduce U.S. carbon dioxide emissions than any other fuel in recent years. That has been confirmed by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the International Energy Agency, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Feb 8, 2015

Steve, unfortunately questioning the motives of references is fair game, and it always has been. Conflicts of interest lessen the value of any point of view regardless of what position is being taken. Bringing up Bryan Shaw’s disavowal of climate science is also fair game, because at this point he might as well be arguing the merits of Flat Earth evidence. It shows a lax disregard for scientific consensus. Is that not relevant?

You continue to mischaracterize my comments and those of Al Armendariz, who never recommended crucifying “the industry”. It’s a testament to government agencies like EPA, which at least don’t have an overt financial incentive to skew their data, that he’s gone. TEQC obviously has no similar safeguards in place.

No one, me included, has time to wade through all of the “data” put forth by trade groups and business councils any more than I have time to read the solicitations which show up in my mailbox every day (which incidentally, might be right or wrong).  if EnergyInDepth really wanted their argument to have some depth, they would reference the work of those whose scientific reputation is worth more than their salary.

Steve Everley's picture
Steve Everley on Feb 8, 2015

I see you’re still refusing to offer any data to counter what’s in this post, so we’ll just accept that as you acknowleding you have nothing substantive to refute what the available data show. In fact, you just admitted that you don’t even care to look at the data, which suggests you have a position but are unwilling to support it with any credible evidence. Again, that’s your right, but I’ll stick with data-driven conclusions, and let’s hope scientists and regulators similarly avoid the kind of speculation that forms the basis for your critique.

As for whether Dr. Armendariz recommended crucifying the industry, we’ll let other readers determine that. Here’s how the New York Times — certainly no friend to the industry — described his remarks:

In the video, Dr. Armendariz discussed his approach to enforcing regulations on hydraulic fracturing in oil and gas extraction, acknowledging that his language might be “a little crude” but saying that it captured the deterrent effect he was seeking.

“It is kind of like how the Romans used to conquer villages in the Mediterranean — they’d go into a little Turkish town somewhere and they’d find the first five guys they saw and they’d crucify them,” Mr. Armendariz said on the tape. “Then that little town was really easy to manage for the next few years.”

He continued: “And so, you make examples out of people who are, in this case, not complying with the law. You find people who are not complying with the law and you hit them as hard as you can and you make examples out of them. There’s a deterrent effect there.”

Mark Heslep's picture
Mark Heslep on May 10, 2016

Wish I had taken that bet.

US dry natural gas production monthly
Feb 2015: 2.06 tcf
Feb 2016: 2.18 tcf

The doomer energy forecasts are as disconnected with evidence as anything I’ve ever seen.

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