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Earth Friendly: Air quality, oil and gas industry

By By Marie Lester
Feb. 9, 2012 at midnight
Updated Feb. 8, 2012 at 8:09 p.m.


Everybody is talking about the oil and gas boom in the Eagle Ford Shale area. A lot of big trucks are on the road, an abundance of jobs are available and drilling sites are popping up all over the landscape. Some associate this boom with money, some with shifts in land use and some with pollution.

The Eagle Ford Shale is the geological formation of interest to oil and gas companies. There are currently 255 drilling operations spread across a 30-county region that are harvesting the natural resources below our Earth's surface. These operations use a technique called "fracking" - which is the short way to say hydraulic fracturing (not the same use of the word my fellow Battlestar Galactica fans are used to).



Fractures in the rock layers below the Earth's surface happen naturally, but oil and gas companies are able to accelerate or begin the fracturing process using fracking. The fracking process involves drilling a well to a depth of about 4,000 to 14,000 feet (in the case of the Eagle Ford Shale).

A highly pressurized water solution containing chemical additives is injected into the well; the energy from injecting the pressurized solution causes fractures to form. The fractures are then held open by a proppant, such as sand, silica, glass or bauxite. The purpose of the fractures is to provide a place for oil and gas contained within the rocks to have a place to flow into.

Oil and gas flows from the rock into the fractures and up to the surface of the earth where it is collected.

Once the oil and gas is extracted from the wells, it is treated, compressed and used for energy and manufacturing. Oil and gas, which are nonrenewable, yet abundant resources, are used to produce more than half of the energy used in the United States.

This energy helps us get around town in our vehicles, power our homes and even keeps our spinning toothbrushes charged. Want to find out how you can consume less energy? Take the Nature Conservancy's energy footprint quiz at nature.org to find out.

I took the quiz and it said my family of four produces 72 tons of pollution per year, which is lower than the United States average of 110 tons, but much higher than the world average of 22 tons per year.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality provides resources to perform air quality research in the Victoria area to find where certain air pollutants come from - oil and gas storage tanks and compressors are studied in this research because they are all over the place in Texas.

This research helps to build an emissions inventory, which is a list of all the sources of chemical emissions in an area.

Oil and gas operations are considered an "area" source of air pollution - which means their emissions are reported to the state in a lump sum rather than by each individual unit (if each one was calculated individually that would be a point source - I remember point sources because I could "point" my finger at it).

In 2012-13, the city of Victoria has a contract with the University of Texas to perform air quality research; UT has several projects lined up that focus on the oil and gas industry. These projects may include monitoring the air around oil and gas operations from a monitoring van, placing canister samplers on the ground near the work site, and supplementing data with satellite based observations.

The Environmental Protection Agency sets regulations for oil and gas production and storage sites. These rules prevent or reduce air pollution. Examples of these rules include capturing emissions and preparing them for sale rather than letting them go into the atmosphere, setting stricter limits on the amount and types of emissions that are allowed, and requiring more regular maintenance of field equipment.

Texas also has plans in place (the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality) that would tighten the rules already in place for the oil and gas industry.

The current oil and gas boom is a boon for our economy, allows us to continue our modern lifestyles and ensures that my son's Spiderman Spin toothbrush will run tomorrow.

Marie Lester, is the environmental programs coordinator for the city of Victoria's Environmental Services Department. You may contact her with topic ideas, inspiration, questions and comments at cmlester@victoriatx.org.

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