Shale play a worry for Bexar ozone

There are concerns that development of the Eagle Ford Shale could push the San Antonio area over the limit of federal standards for ozone levels, an expert told the members of the Eagle Ford Task Force.

“San Antonio is currently the largest city in the United States in full compliance with all federal air quality standards,” said Peter Bella, natural resources director at the Alamo Area Council of Governments, but the city is “right on the edge of nonattainment.”

A big unknown is how Eagle Ford Shale drilling will affect ozone levels in the San Antonio area. Federal standards look at a three-year average of ozone levels using area monitors set up by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“We don’t have the data we need,” Bella said, “but we’re working hard to get it.” That will require looking at a range of equipment, from diesel trucks to pumps, compressors, rigs and pipelines, he said.

When certain compounds — including those from diesel engines — go up into the atmosphere, they cook in sunlight and lead to ozone, Bella said. Ozone can cause shortness of breath, headaches, nausea and can irritate the throat and lungs.

Computer modeling shows that ozone can be present in areas far from the emission source, Bella said. Prevailing winds could carry pollutants from the shale into the San Antonio area.

At the same time, though, the ozone-causing pollutants are falling in metro San Antonio, Bella said. That’s because many vehicles are burning cleaner fuels and a number of industries, along with the city and CPS Energy, have adopted policies that have helped reduce overall pollution.

There are few monitors in the shale because ozone is typically a problem in big urban areas. “There’s talk by the state of putting more monitors in place, but the difficulty is that Texas is a big place,” Bella said. “If you wanted to accurately track emissions, you’d have to put up a heck of a lot of monitors.”

So far this year, San Antonio remains below the ozone standard, “but we still have the toughest months to come, August and September,” Bella said.

The Eagle Ford Task Force also heard from other experts Wednesday about air regulations governing the shale’s development.
Many operators have been forced to flare, or burn, natural gas because there aren’t enough pipelines yet to get the natural gas to market.

Railroad Commissioner David Porter said the commission and some oil and gas companies may launch a program to use natural gas to power on-site generators to power operations in the shale.

Porter also wants to ensure that operators comply fully with the commission’s rules on flaring and venting of gases. But at the same time, he said the flaring rules might need to be amended to be in line with the increased production of all shale plays across Texas.

Development of the Eagle Ford Shale is going to mean more regulation of air emissions from drilling.

The Environmental Protection Agency wants to reduce emissions from natural gas wells by requiring drillers to capture pollutants instead of releasing them into the air. The EPA’s “green completions” rule won’t take effect until January 2015 and will affect only natural gas drillers, not companies drilling in the Eagle Ford Shale’s oil regions, said Erin Selvera, special assistant to the division director of air quality permits at the TCEQ.

vvaughan@express-news.net