Thursday, April 18, 2013

Hey, City Council -- Yes, we CAN and Yes we SHOULD Monitor Air Quality

City Council is finally moving forward with their pledge three months ago to implement an air monitoring program for natural gas development in Denton. Their discussion (start at minute 37) was partly encouraging – with some Council members reiterating the importance of keeping their promise. But it was also partly discouraging – clearly the passage of time since the heady days of the ordinance rewrite have got some Council members scratching their heads trying to remember what all the fuss was about.
There were two worrying moments in particular. First, Council member King (who was clearly suspicious of the need for any monitoring of gas wells) suggested that gas wells are less of a problem than other industries, because the pad sites are spread out and not concentrated in one area. But this is actually what makes gas wells worse than more concentrated industries – each pad site is treated individually with its own pollution permit, which means more total emissions over the whole area than if they were all permitted as a single source of pollution.
King then went on to question Dr. Tramm about the comparative risk between gas wells and other industries. It was an extremely vague and generalized question, so Dr. Tramm said that it depends on lots of factors. Council member King persisted in the line of questioning asking Dr. Tramm to assume “an average well.” Dr. Tramm didn’t give into this urge for simplification and retorted that there are so many variables to consider – age of wells, composition of gas, production levels, operator, etc.
The fact is – and the problem is – that there is no ‘average’ well. Emissions are based on models that assume some kind of average. But actual emissions depend on the actual performance of an actual well. There are all sorts of things that can go wrong, including thief hatches getting stuck and valves malfunctioning, which can drastically increase the actual emissions above the model’s estimates. Note that Dr. Tramm said 25% of his inspections turn up a problem where some piece of equipment is not performing up to specification (i.e., what the model assumes). That does not mean emissions are above the permissible level (which is huge at 25 tons per year for VOCs and other air contaminants), but it does mean there are more emissions than “strictly necessary” and that can usually be easily fixed.
And this is the reason to implement a monitoring program – we can’t catch these problems if we are not looking and if we are not able to see them. There are devices out there that render these invisible pollutants visible – either as plumes on a camera or as spikes on a chart or as numbers on a screen. But the TCEQ is not looking – they only have a handful of air monitors in the region…they certainly are not in the business of monitoring individual gas wells. The Texas RRC is not looking – they actually have fewer inspectors now that there are more gas wells and in 2010 71% of oil and gas facilities across the state went uninspected by the RRC.
Well, surely our own City inspection team is keeping a close eye on emissions of toxic chemicals, right? Nope. Here is a quote from someone on City Staff who knows the situation very well (via e-mail): “The Gas Well Inspections Division does not possess air quality monitoring equipment.”
In short, no one is looking. Now, granted, there are important questions about how much monitoring to do (this is analogous to discussions about how often to get mammograms). Southlake is requiring continual air monitoring upwind and downwind of all pad sites. Maybe that is too much, maybe not. But surely our current level of 0 air monitoring is too little.
Final point on this question: why would we monitor gas wells and not all the other industries in Denton…doesn’t that single them out unfairly? The answer is simple: it is a unique industry that is allowed to occur in non-industrial areas. It is already ‘singled-out’ by that fact. Any industrial activity that can locate just 1,200 feet from schools, parks, homes, and hospitals anywhere in the city deserves increased scrutiny by our local leaders who are charged with ensuring compatibility of local land uses and with protecting our health, safety, and welfare.
This raises the second worrisome moment about the jurisdictional authority of municipal government. Mayor Burroughs asked if the city has the authority to do air monitoring.
The answer here too is easy and we have already established this: Yes. The Texas Clean Air Act states: “A local government has the same power and is subject to the same restrictions as the commission under Section 382.015 to inspect the air and to enter public or private property in its territorial jurisdiction to determine if: (1)  the level of air contaminants in an area in its territorial jurisdiction and the emissions from a source meet the levels set by: (A)  the commission;  or (B)  a municipality's governing body under Section 382.113;  or (2)  a person is complying with this chapter or a rule, variance, or order issued by the commission. (b) A local government shall send the results of its inspections to the commission when requested by the commission.
There is no question here. We have the authority. We should also post results of any air inspections we perform on the City website just as Flower Mound does. As Dr. Tramm noted, people behave differently when they know somebody is watching. For too long, this industry has had no one peering over their shoulder.
I thought we had already answered the questions of should we monitor (King) and can we monitor (Burroughs). Yes and Yes. Let’s now get focused on the real questions: How to monitor (with what equipment and how often)? Where to monitor (which sites to prioritize)? And perhaps most importantly who monitors? City Council is considering arming our inspections team with equipment – that seems reasonable. Dr. Tramm thinks consultants like his firm have a role to play. That seems reasonable as well. But what about citizens – especially those living near wells? Maybe we should arm them with the training and equipment to be watchdogs of the industry.


  1. Thanks a lot for a gathering of good tips. I look forward to reading more on the topic in the future. Keep up the good work! This blog is going to be great supply.

    1. I am inquisitive to find out what blog scheme you’re utilising? I’m having some secondary security troubles with my latest blog and
      I would like to find something more risk-free.

  2. Thanks for another wonderful post. Where else could anyone get that type of info in such an ideal way of writing? I have a presentation next week, and I’m on the look for such info.

    Air Monitoring