Texas regulators begin aerial surveys of oil and gas facilities

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is conducting video surveillance of air quality over oil and gas production facilities in South and West Texas this summer, using infrared video images to determine whether more detailed investigation is needed.

No citations will be issued based on the fly-over monitoring, said Keith Sheedy, technical advisor in the commission’s office of air. But the monitoring, which is scheduled to continue through mid-August, could prompt the commission to send field inspectors to production facilities for follow-up, he said.

The analysis covers much of the Eagle Ford Shale and the Permian Basin, the busiest regions in Texas for drilling these days.

Producers say they are ready for the heightened scrutiny.

“It’s the world we live in today,” said Alex Mills, president of the Texas Alliance of Energy Producers. “It’s a changing world. With the federal regulatory arena we’ve been in since 2009, it’s created a lot more regulations, more paperwork, more compliance. People in the oil and gas business in Texas have to be on their toes.”

The monitoring, which began in mid-June, will cover 22 counties, using a helicopter equipped with an infrared camera to take video images of volatile organic compounds and other hydrocarbons. Volatile organic compounds can combine with nitrogen oxides to form ozone.

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The camera can’t quantify how much of the compounds are present, Sheedy said, but simply alerts the commission staff to their presence. Using the helicopter allows the monitoring to covering a larger area.

When the monitoring is completed, he said the agency will began to determine which companies are working in areas where emissions were reported and send inspectors for follow-up.

The targeted counties include Andrews, Atascosa, Bee, Crockett, De Witt, Dimmit, Ector, Gaines, Howard, Irion, Karnes, La Salle, Live Oak, Martin, McMullen, Midland, Reagan, Reeves, Upton, Ward, Webb and Winkler.

This isn’t the first time the commission has used the fly-over monitoring technique. Adam Bullock, a technical specialist with the agency, said it has periodically used aerial monitoring as a screening tool since 2005.

Sheedy said videos taken by the infrared camera can help to determine if companies are in compliance with their permits.

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While no citations will be issued based on the videos, he said companies are required to keep records of emissions to demonstrate compliance.

Teddy Carter, vice president for government affairs with the Texas Independent Producers & Royalty Owners Association, said producers are far more aware of emissions and regulations now than they were in the past.

“A lot more scrutiny has been put on the industry,” he said. “Any regulations that are on the books, I think everybody does everything they can to comply with. If this helps to identify people who are out of compliance, hopefully this will help them to get where they need to be.”

Debbra Hastings, executive vice president of the Texas Oil & Gas Association, said larger companies often use high-tech equipment similar to that deployed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to safeguard against unintended leaks, including infrared cameras and handheld detection devices.

That’s a safety issue, as well as an environmental issue, Hastings said.

But small companies may have a more difficult time, and Mills said his organization has sponsored a number of seminars to help small exploration and production companies understand state and federal regulations. “These are really technical regulations, especially when you’re dealing with air emissions.

“We’ve trying to work with the Railroad Commission and with TCEQ on both air and water,” he said. We all live here. We don’t want it polluted either.”

Kevin Cauble, a manager in the commission’s air quality division, said the commission won’t know how many production sites were surveyed, or which companies were involved in the monitoring, until the end of the project.

Law enforcement and the state’s oil and gas associations were notified of the monitoring, he said.