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Pro: Flaring is safe way to prevent harmful air pollution

By Sara Sneath
March 16, 2014 at 10:02 p.m.
Updated March 15, 2014 at 10:16 p.m.


Flaring is not inherently dangerous, and there is evidence to suggest drilling activity does not have a significant affect on air quality, according to a research scientist at the University of Texas at Austin.

In Cheapside, where rolling farmland used to host cotton and livestock, well sites can be seen on hilltops in every direction. The community, which basically consists of Farm-to-Market Road 2067, no longer has a township.

"The only complaint you might have up and down this road is the traffic. The road has shrunk by about 7 feet," Matthew Bryand, 33, of Cheapside, said of the drilling activity in the area.

Bryand's family owns an oil company.

"I've been in the oil business since I was 18. It puts people to work and keeps the unemployment rate down," Bryand said.

He isn't concerned for his health while working on well sites or from living within a mile of several flares. Oil companies are more environmentally cautious than they used to be, he said.

"They don't want nothing contaminated," he said.

In a study conducted by Texas Department of State Health Services on residents of Dish, which is centrally located within the Barnett Shale play, researchers did not find significantly higher levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in their blood streams, said Ian Duncan, a research scientist at the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin.

Duncan said he didn't know of a study on the health effects of flaring alone. Residents in the study on Dish who did have higher levels of benzene in their blood were cigarette smokers, he said.

"So, smoking gives you a whole lot more benzene contamination than Barnett Shale would give you," Duncan said.

Duncan said the Barnett Shale region has had long-term air monitoring in place because the Dallas-Fort Worth area has been classified as a non-attainment area by the Environmental Protection Agency's standards, a classification that means an area doesn't meet EPA's set ozone standards.

But no such long-term air monitoring is present in DeWitt County. Without long-term monitoring, it's difficult to know what effect drilling activity has on air quality in the county.

Scientists don't like to extend the results of a study beyond the scope studied, Duncan said. But he does not think the effects on air quality of drilling in the Barnett Shale play would be much different from the effects of drilling in the Eagle Ford Shale play, he said.

"I'd be surprised if it would be a whole lot different," he said.

Five stationary air quality monitoring sites with 11 pollutant monitors are in the 26-county Eagle Ford Shale area, Andrea Morrow, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

Three of those sites are in Webb County, one in Maverick County and one in Wilson County. None of the 11 monitors have detected levels of concern for VOCs, Morrow said.

The TCEQ has also done two aerial surveys - in 2011 and 2013 - of the Eagle Ford Shale with infrared imaging cameras to spot VOC emissions, she said.

More than 10,000 individual tanks were surveyed in the 2013 survey, according to the TCEQ website. Of the tanks surveyed, 5 percent were found to have some degree of emissions, either authorized or unauthorized. Follow-up investigations at facilities with observed emissions will determine compliance with authorizations and regulations, according to the site.

Shale gas drilling has led to a small increase in benzene levels in the Barnett Shale area, Duncan said. But the amount of pollutants are far less than the amount emitted by vehicles in larger cities such as Austin or Houston, he said.

"The health effects of smoking and commuting along highways is far worse than shale gas development," Duncan said.

Con: Flaring is not properly monitored and releases harmful pollutants into the air

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