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TCEQ Releases Emissions Study for Barnett Shale - Added Regulatory Attention Expected

January 29, 2010

On January 27, 2010, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) released its highly anticipated Barnett Shale Formation Area Monitoring Projects survey. The survey was conducted over three months in the latter part of 2009 and focuses on characterizing air emissions associated with natural gas and oil production in the Barnett Shale. Out of a total of 94 monitoring sites spread over 5,000 square miles and six counties, benzene levels at two sites were determined to exceed TCEQ's short-term health-based comparison value, and at another 19 sites, TCEQ expressed concern about long-term cumulative exposure. 

While TCEQ recommends continued and expanded monitoring, the agency also notes that at the majority of monitoring sites, chemicals were either not detected or detected below levels of immediate concern. TCEQ's survey memorandum lists the following agency actions and recommendations:

  • Conduct additional stationary long-term monitoring to assess the influence of oil and gas activity on VOC concentrations;
  • Begin regular helicopter flights to identify large hydrocarbon plumes from oil and gas sources;
  • Investigate sources for proper permit authorization;
  • Perform investigations with passive infrared cameras to focus additional testing and investigations;
  • Review permitting rules that apply to oil and gas operations;
  • Conduct a "special emissions inventory" to more clearly define locations, sources, and emissions in the Barnett Shale area, including actual analysis of gas from each site, an inventory of equipment at each site, and emissions calculations for demonstration; and
  • Conduct outreach and compliance assistance to small operators via cooperation with the Texas Railroad Commission, including the development of a fact sheet summarizing environmental compliance requirements and common violations.

Beyond the increased attention that is expected to arise from TCEQ's recommendations, there are additional statewide and national implications that warrant consideration:

  • Investigations. Similar use of the infrared camera and mobile monitoring tools will likely be used in other natural gas production fields in Texas, including the Haynesville Shale, as well as other areas across the nation.
  • Emission Factors and Controls. Investigations will naturally lead to questions regarding whether the emission factors should be improved to better represent the identified benzene emissions and the appropriate emission controls for sources of concern. Such emission factors and controls may be promoted or considered for industry-wide application by local, state or federal agencies or other interested parties nationwide.
  • Texas Legislative Session. Absent TCEQ regulation, the Texas Legislature may attempt to impose statutory environmental controls or air toxic legislation. Significantly, in 2011, TCEQ will be subject to "Sunset" review in which the legislature reviews the state agency for reauthorization, often with extensive changes to the agency. The Sunset process provides a forum for discussion and possible passage of air toxic legislation that has been under consideration for the past several sessions and that may receive additional attention due to the Barnett Shale investigations.
  • Ozone Implications. TCEQ has also authorized a study to develop an "ambient emission signature" for oil and gas compression engines, gas wells and pipelines. This study could have a significant impact on how such facilities are considered in future ozone models and state implementation plan control strategies.
  • Threat of Toxic Tort Litigation. Toxic tort litigation may not be far behind. As the technology to measure ever smaller levels of chemicals such as benzene continues to evolve, activists and the plaintiff's bar have pushed increasingly to associate any measured exposure to benzene with a host of adverse health conditions.

Although the TCEQ survey was not focused entirely on hydraulic fracturing activities, the announcement is likely to draw the attention of environmental groups opposed to the expansion of unconventional natural gas production via hydraulic fracturing. Environmental groups have largely focused their opposition to hydraulic fracturing on perceived concerns about impacts to water quality; however, uncertainty surrounding air emissions from natural gas production facilities, especially benzene, adds another environmental facet to the discussion.