San Antonio and Fracking – could this push the area out of compliance with federal clean air standards?

Map of Texas highlighting counties served by t...

Texas counties served by AACOG

San Antonio, which sits just north of what many say is one of the largest oil and gas reserves in the country known as the Eagle Ford, is a heart beat away from violating federal air quality standards for ground-level ozone. It seems it is only a matter of time before the increased emissions from the Eagle Ford could drift up on prevailing winds, pushing the area out of compliance.

With drilling expected to increase over the next decade, those responsible for this region’s air quality say the increased pollution could make it difficult to remain under federal limits.  In the past decade, San Antonio’s ozone levels have decreased by 13 percent while its population has increased 13 percent, managing to stay just ahead of federal standards.  However, once a region falls out of compliance, efforts to get back in are time-consuming, politically unpopular and expensive.

It is going to be a tough contest for the environment to compete with the hype about the economic benefits (which always fail to take into account the economic costs to the region for these types of activities – increased health care costs, decreased quality of life costs, and the cost of coming back into compliance with federal air quality standards).

According to a study by the Center for Business Research at the University of Texas at San Antonio and commissioned by America’s Natural Gas Association:

Activity in the Eagle Ford in 2010 alone generated more than $2.9 billion in total revenue, supported roughly 12,600 full-time jobs and provided nearly $47.6 million in local government revenue.

Last year there were 72 active oil leases, some of which may have more than one well, and 158 producing gas wells.

However, the number of drilling permits issued by the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, has reached 1,132 as of February. In just one year, the output of crude oil, condensate and other liquids nearly quadrupled to 3.9 million barrels.

And the boom has just begun; the UTSA study forecasts that 5,000 more wells could be drilled by 2020.

So far, no regulatory agency has begun comprehensive air monitoring in the Eagle Ford area, meaning there’s no baseline to measure any increased pollution.

Models for other regions of the country show drilling and related emissions can increase ground-level ozone significantly and the sheer volume of drilling that’s expected over the next decade, will require Alamo Area Council of Governments (AACOG) to add a new category, for drilling and recovery, into its air pollution forecasting models.

The San Antonio Express News writes about the area:

The Eagle Ford shale covers a swath roughly 50 miles wide and 400 miles long, from Maverick and Webb counties sweeping north and east up to Leon and Houston counties, but not including Bexar County. Unlike other large shale formations that have recently been tapped, the Eagle Ford includes a good deal of oil, mostly along the northern reach.

Because oil prices are high and natural gas prices low at the moment, there’s more activity in the oil region at this time, industry analysts say.

Drilling has occurred in South Texas for decades, but the oil and gas trapped in the deeper, dense rock layers once were too expensive to reach. Advances in drilling technology, most notably hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, have allowed an unprecedented amount of hydrocarbons to be extracted.

“Fracking,” as it’s known, forces millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and a variety of chemicals, into shale formations, forcing open fissures to allow the natural gas and oil to escape. Horizontal drilling allows for one hole to be drilled vertically, then one or more pipes to branch out into the shale.

Together, these techniques have spawned a natural gas boom in the country, with some industry experts estimating a 100-year supply of a fuel that burns more cleanly than coal and could help push the country toward energy independence.

In other parts of the country the boom is well under way, and as drilling has increased, so have complaints about its environmental impacts, most notably drinking water contamination.  While it remains unclear whether fracturing has contaminated drinking water, the EPA last month agreed to study the entire life cycle of the gas production process, to determine how it can affect drinking water supplies.

While water has gotten the lion’s share of the attention thus far, air quality concerns also are increasing and seem to be the area of most concern to San Antonio as they look toward increased drilling activities in the region.  Let’s hope they can stay ahead of this new boom.